Taming the Dragon

“The brain sees what the heart wants to feel.”
–Shallow Hal

I read this recently and thought it perfectly summed up something I’ve been working on for a few years (and more so lately): Paying attention to the motives and meanings I assign to events that happen in my life. When it comes to romantic relationships, especially, I can easily assign negative meaning to otherwise neutral events, because even though my heart doesn’t actually want to feel rejection, it is hyper-vigilant about looking for rejection in an effort to protect itself, and so I constantly interpret events based on that fear. For instance, if my partner chooses to spend time with friends or family instead of me, my story becomes: “she would rather be with them.” Or if she’s conversing with an ex who tells my partner they miss her, I assume this must mean the ex still has romantic feelings toward my partner. And God forbid my partner reciprocate that sentiment, because then all hell breaks loose inside my mind. If my partner “like’s” other women’s pictures on facebook (and especially if she comments on them,) if she doesn’t text to say “I love you” when I leave the house, if she’s too busy with friends or family to talk when I call, if she shares something funny she sees with someone else rather than with me… these all get interpreted in my mind as some version of “she doesn’t care” or “she’s going to leave” and there are literally thousands of ways my fears and insecurities can be triggered on a daily basis.

The interesting thing to me about this is that it’s not something that happens to everyone. I know plenty of people who don’t assign this sort of meaning to events and circumstances, and my therapist says this is because these people have am inner sense of safety that keeps them from being afraid of rejection and abandonment, and it allows them to interpret events like this from a place of love and acceptance instead of fear. By contrast, I am hyper-vigilant in searching for any evidence that even remotely looks threatening. Because I hold the terrifying belief that people are going to leave or suddenly stop loving me, my mind feels it must constantly look for threats and work to keep this from happening at all costs. As a friend recently said: I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and trying to do all I can to keep it from doing so. Unfortunately, this means that I not only look for potential threat, I also find threat where none exists, much like the survivor suffering from PTSD whose heart might race at any loud noise, regardless of the source.

This tendency to interpret events through the lens of what we already believe is called confirmation bias. I have written about this in depth before, but in brief, confirmation bias is our tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe. It leads us to subconsciously ignore facts that run contrary to what we assume is true and actively search out information that confirms our opinion. You can easily see this play out if you’ve ever had an overly-sensitive friend or partner who gets offended by a missed call or canceled plans. No matter how many calls you’ve returned or how many get-togethers you’ve attended, the day you miss one, this person feels hurt and rejected. You may reason with them saying “but I did x and y and z, how can you think that I don’t care?” But in that moment, they’re caught up in their story—interpreting the missed call or event according to what they already believe or fear—and cannot be convinced otherwise.

Why? Because “the brain sees what the heart wants to feel.” (Or, in this case, not what it “wants” to feel, but what our past experiences and trauma have taught it to feel and work to protect itself from.) The good news is that with effort we can literally re-train our minds not to think this way by paying close attention to our thoughts. I wrote more about that here, but one quick and easy tool I have found and am working to apply is a suggestion by Martha Beck, who says the best thing we can possibly do in this struggle is to imagine our fearful thoughts as coming from a little dragon perched on our shoulders whispering terrible things. She says rather than believing those things, struggling against them, or trying to find 1,763 ways to keep ourselves “safe” from what it tells us, we must simply pet the dragon on the head and say: “there, there, thank you for sharing. Now go to sleep.” (Similar to a process I described years ago, here.)

Today, I am reminding myself that my dragon particularly loves to whisper tales of rejection and abandonment, and if I listen I will find these things even where they do not exist. Today, I am reminding myself that fear is just a feeling, and right now–right this very moment–I am sitting in bed with a laptop in front of me and none of the terrifying things I am afraid of are happening. As Jonathan Fields once said:

“Fear is an anticipatory emotion. Once you’re in the moment and you have the ability to actually respond to what’s in front of you, fear becomes nearly impossible to sustain.”

I don’t want to spend one more precious moment of this life making myself miserable ruminating over something that might happen. I don’t want to spend my time miserably trying to figure out how to keep from feeling future pain, while inflicting actual pain on myself with thoughts of fear regarding the future. My worry has yet to result in a problem-free existence, and during those relatively rare times when the things I fear actually do come to pass they’ve never been as bad as what I anticipated them to be, and, one way or another, ALWAYS come with the strength I need to get through them.

Today, I am reminding myself:

“Worry is a misuse of the imagination”
– Dan Zadra

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Related Articles:

Confirmation bias – how our thoughts shape our reality and how we can use this to create a better life

Revolution

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