Tag Archives: psychology

Recreational Irritation

Here’s my Monday Question: why do people read or watch things that clearly upset them?

I do not watch Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. I do not listen to Rush Limbaugh. Why? Because I do not think they have anything useful or educated to contribute to the political conversation or my day. As such, I find it extremely irritating to be in their company, especially when there’s yelling.

Likewise, I do not go out to dinner with people I know to be rude, offensive or just plain boring.

Let’s add a clear exception here for education and directed moral action, shall we? No one enjoys reading about historical atrocities or the current genocides in Africa, for instance, but it’s best we know about them. Likewise, there’s a time and place for opposition research, like, say, if I thought I could get Beck off the air by landing a job at Fox News in the mailroom, working my way up to becoming his producer and manipulating his deranged ranting with subliminal messaging and voice dubbing to make him sound like a combination of Big Bird and Hitler. (Come to think of it, he’s pretty close to that combo now and no one’s pulling his show, so I might have to come up with an alternate plan.)

Aside from those two cases though, why would I recreationally engage with content that makes me irritable? I have so many things I really, actively want to do on any given day, what possible reason could I have for adding optional, annoying things to that list? Like reading someone’s blog, for instance, if I don’t think they’re funny, like their writing or find them interesting, entertaining or inspiring? Why would I do that? Call me crazy, but that just seems silly to me.

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday about my writing and I mentioned some negative feedback I’d gotten on a couple of occasions. I’m fine with that input, (as long as it’s respectfully expressed, which, of course, it isn’t always, but that’s another subject). I am writing in a public forum. I don’t think I write about particularly incendiary issues but some of the subjects I write about are open for disagreement and some portion of my readers are, as a result, bound to disagree with me at some point or another. No problem. What I don’t get is why anyone would continue to routinely subject themselves to reading things that regularly upset them. It is so optional. Why would they do that to themselves?

I’m not talking about constructive conversations full of even tempers, reasonable suggestions and lots of facts. I’m talking about, ‘You’re a jerk!’ upset. I’m not sure what the possible positive outcome is there for anyone involved. There are a stunning ton of these people out there posting poorly spelled, angry responses on op-ed pages and filling the airwaves with distinctly unconstructive criticism, so there must be a reason for it or some satisfaction to be had from it. I just don’t understand what that is.

(Not that I’m myself fielding the real crazies here. I’m not big enough for that. But it’s the same, “I don’t like you,” phenomenon, only milder.)

Maybe this is akin to taking pleasure in watching horror films (which I also don’t understand): some people inexplicably enjoy being irritated and upset. I just don’t get that – life is short, no? – but each to their own, I guess.

So here, for distressed readers who routinely read or listen to media they find stressful but insist on following anyway, are a few suggestions for other things that might engage your attention and fill your time in equally or more upsetting ways:

  1. Bill O’Reilly. Dumptrucks of bilge every single day. Bonanza. You’ll love it.
  2. The rest of the internet. I hear it can be very, very upsetting in places.
  3. My Christmas shopping. It has a lot of annoying bits, including driving to crowded places, parking in crowded places, shopping in crowded places for an indefinite number of undefined items for a wide range of recipients, and carrying those items around in insufficiently reinforced shopping bags through crowded places. Bliss.
  4. 2012. It’s a very bad, very loud movie about multiple apocalyptic events, so you’ll have a headache and be depressed. Two-for-one holiday fun!
  5. Dropping moderately heavy objects on your feet. This doesn’t sound fun or productive to me, but who I am to say? Give it a go!

So there you are. I hope that helps. And a lovely, sunny day to all of you, especially the ones who are starting it off all avoidably worked up.

How’s My Driving?


When I was a kid, there were a fair number of days when I stomped into my green-shag-carpeted room (in as much as stomping is possible on what basically amounted to a wool lawn) vowing that, “They’ll be sorry someday.”

The “they” was usually my parents or older brother, and I imagined that “someday” would mean, say, Thursday, and not twenty years hence, so I could be sure that the certain forthcoming consequences were a direct result of my wrath.

As a child with no access to nuclear gadgetry, large sums of cash, or an invisible jet (all necessary to combating injustice), the literal imposition of my revenge was difficult to effect.

Even at the age of seven though, I sensed that moral revenge – the inducing of massive regret in the offending parties – would last longer. Tearing off the lower leg of my brother’s Boba Fett action figure had only made Boba look more bad ass, but if I could make my brother sorry, make him see how deeply and permanently wounded I was by his Lego hoarding, then I could look forward to a lifetime of conciliation, apology and handed-over baked goodies.

For the record, inducing regret in a nine-year-old boy is well nigh impossible.

Sometimes, when I’m worn down, I still hear that child’s righteous voice in the back of my head, wishing that guilt would sweep over my oppressors du jour, swamping them with too-late understanding, like the Red Sea closing over Moses’ pursuers. (It’s possible I may have spent too much time in Sunday school when I was young and impressionable.)

But here’s the fact of it: most people just don’t think about other people that much. That’s why the spontaneous regret induction plan doesn’t work. It’s not that you’re not hurt enough or they’re bad people. They’re just not looking in your direction at all. Most personal crimes are crimes of inattention, not intention. Their eyes are on their road – in front of and behind them – as yours are on yours, so swerving into other people’s lanes when roads intersect is all but inevitable.

What to do? As I see it, there are two options: alert the other driver to the accident their swerving’s caused on your side of the road (which might or might not result in a straightening out but will at least mean you’ve attended to the wreckage blocking your path and you can drive on), or locate the keys to your invisible jet.

Of course, I really wish everyone were like my nearest and dearest and attentively checking their side mirrors, but that’s just not how the cookie crumbles. Stupid cookie.

Anyone seen my keys?



Oh, The Temptation from Steve V on Vimeo.

Remember that article in The New Yorker about kids and self-control and marshmallows? This is the video that was never made of that study.

Ever since I read it, I’ve been preoccupied by that story. Would I have eaten the marshmallow? Is there a way to reverse engineer my way back through my life to see what I’d have done? That theoretical marshmallow could have determined the course of the rest of my life. If only I’d known.


Disappointment lies in the gap between expectations and reality.

Unless of course you keep your expectations really low, below the reality line, in which case, you probably come across as a pessimist who is surprised a lot, which probably makes you seem a little unbalanced to your friends. I do that. More often, though, when the butter slides off the pancake, I get caught in the trough between what I hoped would happen and what did happen. Then there’s a lot of indignation and words like “shouldn’t” and, “what” and, “the” and, “hell.” As in, “She shouldn’t behave like that!” and, “Since when can gerbils chew through metal? What the hell?”

I used to think that the sweet spot to avoiding that disappointment was to lower my expectations just enough that they would line up exactly with reality and then I’d never be disappointed by someone letting me down, a situation going sideways or a loose gerbil eating my paperbacks. Turns out that that line up is a tricky proposition and well nigh impossible to locate: reality is too inconsistent to plot. So I either ended up pessimistically underexpecting and looking silly – “Human flight is just so improbable… Oh, wait – we’re landing?” – or still overexpecting and feeling foolish, “I hope he won’t do that again… Oh, wait – he did?”

I’ve been talking with a Buddhist for a while and it turns out there’s another option. Buddhism advocates abandoning expectations altogether. This isn’t so you can avoid being disappointed. It’s because expectations and the resulting disappointment or elation cloud your ability to see the situation as it is, and that is a bad thing. If I’m navigating my disappointment, chances are I’m not seeing what the gerbils are actually up to (which might be interesting or just clarifying, like if they’ve gotten their hands on some files and are sharpening their teeth) or what unforeseen market opportunities metal-eating gerbils might present.

At first, I thought abandoning expectations meant abandoning what I’d learned through experience and naively opening myself up to even more disappointment (i.e. “I expect nothing,” equals, “I know nothing,”) or, related, abandoning my good judgment about avoiding a bad situation in the future. Not so, apparently.

Learning from history and planning accordingly are still part of the landscape – just not in the moment itself. If I’m upset by the marauding gerbils, I can decide ahead of time to build a reenforced concrete pen. Or abstain from keeping rodents entirely. I can plan to show up late when meeting a chronically late friend or not to be friends at all with someone chronically unreliable. Once I’ve sorted all that out and agreed to enter a situation however, expectations of how it will turn out are better checked with my coat.

It’s a good plan and it’s worked well when I’ve been able to implement it. You can just take it all in as it comes. It’s a tough habit to get into though when there’s conflict involved. Heading into a difficult situation with your eyes wide open is no walk in the park. I used to arm up with defensiveness (the negative expectation) or unfounded optimism (the positive expectation). Now, I try to just show up and see what happens.

It definitely gives me a clearer view of what’s happening, but sometimes what’s happening is pretty difficult to take. Without expectations, I don’t get angry anymore, I just get sad. What do you do then? Well, a guy I worked with for a while used to say, “Facts are friendly,” and he was right: it’s better to know what’s up even if it sucks. A clear view gives you the chance to correct your course rather than continuing in ignorance down what could very well be a wrong road that ends up nowhere nice. If you eliminate expectations, the reality of the situation is neither bad nor good, it just is. It might make you sad in the short term, but that’s no worse than being disappointed and indignant. It’s what you learn from that reality and what you do with that knowledge that matter. Now, at least, you’re starting from a solid platform of observation rather than trying to plot a course through the blur of frustrated expectations.

So. Onward and upward. It’s been a rough week, this last one, with more than a few disappointing surprises, but here’s to a better and calmer continuation on the path to enlightenment.

None of the surprises had anything to do with gerbils, by the way. Why do you ask?

Insane in the Membrane, etc.


In the deep lower portion of your brain, there’s a bit called the amygdala. It’s primary function is to keep you alive: it controls the fight or flight reflex and, related, can shut down the part of your prefrontal cortex responsible for the imagining of positive outcomes. If you’re in a panic, that shutdown makes sure you’re imagining the worst case scenario to better ensure your survival.

Of course, if you’re in a panic not related to being eaten by a nearby lion, that shutdown is less helpful. That’s where I am. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

The 50th wedding anniversary party for R’s parents last weekend was a success by all outside measures: the feted couple was delighted, the guests appeared happy, we didn’t run out of anything and nothing burned down. Mission accomplished.

In parallel news though, the side effects of organizing and executing a major family event have proven difficult to manage, as anyone with a troubling family history who’s ever gone home for Christmas could probably have predicted. I might have predicted them myself if I hadn’t been a.) changing careers, b.) traveling internationally and c.) fending off planning a wedding.

Robert Sapolsky, a biologist at Stanford, wrote a book about human stress and coping called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In it, he talks about a zebra’s response to moving grass. If the movement is caused by a lion, the zebra’s best bet is to run. If the movement isn’t caused by a lion, the zebra can stay put. Since the cost of guessing wrong, though, is death, the zebra bolts when the grass moves, without first investigating the cause. Makes sense. For a zebra.

Humans have the same wiring. That is, our fight-or-flight reflex is also tied to predicting patterns (moving grass might = lion) and risks (moving grass might = lion, lion = likely death). (I’d like to discuss what the fight option might look like for a zebra – boxing? – but we’ll come back to that some other time.) Fortunately for us, we are not often stalked by lions, so the consequences of faulty reflexes, bad guesses and poor peripheral vision are not routinely deadly. Unfortunately for us, perceived emotional risk is handled by the same circuits that manage perceived physical risk.

For instance, if you grew up in a predictable, safe home, you probably have no emotional association or resulting pattern prediction with the sound of the front door opening. Someone’s arrived. End of circuit. If you had an unstable mother, however, you might associate that same sound with the arrival of threat because it might mean that mom’s home and therefore bad things might happen, so your amygdala preemptively amps up, tension kicks in, panic takes over, positive outcomes darken, and so on. For a zebra (prey) or a kid (powerless), that’s the right response: run or brace. For adults with more options (fences, airline tickets to the other side of the country), that chain reaction is often an ineffective and upsetting misfire, a learned response to conditions that no longer exist. Hence, ulcers. Or panic attacks, flashbacks, and very unpleasant weeks.

The good news is that with concerted effort, you can retrain your amygdala to pipe down once activated and, eventually, you can reset its trigger point, so you’re not stuck with your current wiring. (See your local cognitive behavioral therapist for assistance.)

In the meantime, under stress, my amygdala isn’t making fine distinctions. It kicks in when it thinks I’m cornered, and it’s not built for detail. The connection of “family” to “hazard” applies to all families as far as it’s concerned (even nice ones) and there’s nothing like trying to rope together a sizable family event on a too-short schedule to trip the wire. (Yes, again, even for the nice ones.) For the last few weeks, I’ve been in varying states of panic, claustrophobia and heightened anxiety. There’s been a lot of unprovoked (to the outside eye anyway) crying, not a lot of writing and quite a bit of imagining bad outcomes.

So today, in an effort to reboot the part of my brain that can imagine positive outcomes, I’m taking a break. I’m not checking email, which I’ve never tried before and which is proving very difficult, especially as the little red number of unread emails is glaring at me from my dock. I’m not thinking about the unbelievably stressful and disassociative day I spent trying on wedding dresses earlier this week (beyond writing that sentence, that is). I’m not contemplating the prospect of getting on the plane for London on Monday evening and am explicitly not imagining the two weddings and two and a half weeks abroad, mostly with family, that lurks on the other side of tomorrow.

Today, I decided last night, I’m writing and doing pleasant things only. (I’m very lucky to be able to do that, I realize.)

If you have any stories with happy endings, fluffy bunnies or tasty chocolates you’d like to drop by, today is the day. Come on over: we’re retraining my brain – it’ll be fun!