Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Cognitive Dissonance

I'm a relatively mellow guy, contrary to what everybody says about me behind my back. There are few ways to consistently ruin my day. You could probably do it by dynamiting my car or burning my apartment down. Maybe kick me in the baby-maker, or whatever.

Anything smaller than that, I usually just let go. If you were to map my moods on a chart, like the ones geologists use to track earthquakes, they would follow a flat line. No ups, no downs, just steady sailing. One mood, all the time, as the old joke goes.

I take after my dad in temperament. If you look beyond the colorful language ("More broke up than a bag of assholes!", for example) and an extraordinarily earthy sense of humor, you'll find what is, essentially, a Stoic. He doesn't get ruffled by life and he mostly gets along just fine with everyone. He has an easy-going nature and ability to pick up friends which I envy dearly and try to emulate whenever possible.

My mother, however, is another matter entirely. She's from Indiana and she has a Hoosier mean streak. I would rather assault the Kremlin equipped with nothing more than a birthday suit and a plastic Taco Bell spork than piss her off. It is also, I believe, the reason my dad has lived so long--if you want a long and mostly happy life, marry a beautiful ex-nurse with a temper. Most of the better decisions in my life have mostly resulted from me asking myself "would this piss off my mom?" Fortunately, the things which piss her off align very closely with healthy life-style choices. Wash your hands, brush your teeth, avoid major debt, don't start major land wars in China, etc.

Other people in her family have a violent temper. Or they're meaner. Or they have a greater capacity for evil. It comes out differently in every person, I think, just listening to the family stories.

My mother is a natural storyteller and has a vast memory for certain details. She could tell you what she was doing the day George Burns died. She could, off the top of her head, tell you a large number of the movies he did, who he married, who acted with him regularly and if they're still alive. It's pretty incredible. She usually only bothers with IMDB to prove a point. She has a better version in her head.

Her Hoosier mean streak arises from that, I think. Storytelling plus long memory equals a recipe for self-reinforcing brooding. I know, because that's how it carried down to me.

I never really lose my temper, save for the occasional unfortunate witticism--an inherent lack of filter plus a natural affinity for insult comedy has, in fact, gotten me into trouble in the past, as you might expect.

Something happens to piss me off and I brood about it. Let it rattle around in my head. I have imaginary conversations with those people involved where I picture them telling me things which piss me off even more. I mentally reinforce details which buttress my narrative. I downplay things which don't. I build a scenario in my head every bit as convincing and detailed as something I'm writing. It's awful.

And once that ball starts rolling it's hard to stop it. Eventually it reaches a tipping point and I either realize what I'm doing or it boils over into the real world in strange ways. I've got into some truly bizarre arguments because of it. I once got into a heated argument with a roommate because he denied that he had a worse sense of smell than I do. It didn't even make sense at the time and, no, you didn't have to be there. Fucked up, right?

But it only happens in certain circumstances. And I think I figured out why earlier this week: cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the emotional stress which happens when you have two contradictory beliefs in your head at the same time. You're a cop tasked to protect the public, but the public hates you. You know drinking is ruining your life, but you keep drinking anyway. The Star Wars prequel trilogy sucked donkey balls, but you're still a Star Wars fan. You get the idea. Basic psychology.

It works itself out in weird ways, eventually, a sort of subliminal stress-derived gut punch which produces a wellspring of irrational behavior. It ramps up the drama level of your life, erodes your basic common sense. You wind up getting into heated arguments online with complete strangers about how Jar-Jar ruined everything, man.

In my case, these fits of brooding happen when someone I'm really fond of--a long-time friend, a relative, whatever--does something spectacularly crazy or awful. Sometimes not intended, sometimes it is. Sometimes trivial, sometimes major.

If it was from a complete stranger or someone I'm okay with not liking, I'd just put it into my "hey, an asshole did this" bin, close the drawer and be done with it.

But since it's someone I care about doing the crazy-talk, I can't. It's something I'm naturally inclined to let go, but since I care about whoever did it, I can't just write them off into my asshole drawer. Sometimes I say something right away to make it worse because my monkey-brain tells me the proper response is to fling poo, which my target usually volleys back with double the force.

I start to brood.

The brooding bounces around in my head, the contradictions between the urge to ignore and not ignore causing thoughts to ping around in there like a BB in a tin can, which is about as accurate a portrayal of my brain as you can get.

Eventually something gives. I either realize just how ridiculous and trivial things are and I apologize profusely, frequently to the vast confusion of the target who has long since moved on and largely forgotten the entire situation, or I let it out, usually to the detriment of everyone involved, mostly me.

The only real way I've found to stop this is to realize, as soon as possible, that there's a direct correlation between how pissed off I am about something and the urgent need to drop it and move on with my life. Every time I feel myself beginning to brood, I just say "nope", clear the thought and think about something, anything, else. Let it fade with neglect.

Pop psychology would say bottling up your anger that way is a terrible way to cope, but it's dead wrong. Anger feeds on itself. Letting it loose simply makes the shit-storm clingier. Anger dies when there's nothing left to feed it.

Fortunately, it only happens very rarely. Possibly once a year, no more than that. Long-term grudges like that bother me because they are so rare, I think. I know people who get through life in a state of near-constant simmer and I wonder how they can even function with that much inside them. I find even spending a week like this in a three year period to be completely exhausting.

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