Thursday, November 05, 2015

A little more about that dirtyword: Blame

Should I sue the hotel?
Not saying there's anything new, here. But is is a practical application, something to keep in mind when someone is busy blaming you for God knows what. 
When we think back later, we say, What a silly argument!
This morning FD left without his keys. He returned right away and knocked on the door. It took me awhile to open up and he was angry--at me-- for taking so long, making him late. The best possible spin on this is to assume that sharing emotions is a good thing, better out than in. Permission to let off steam is what healthy couples do.

So why does it feel so bad?

A few months ago, after stubbing my toe on the metal frame of a hotel bed, I cried out. Maybe I even cursed the hotel. It hurt a lot, warranted expletives, facial grimaces. The object of the anger, unclear. A person can't exactly rant at a bed frame, it is inanimate, doesn't care. Hotel management might care, but it is inconvenient to go to the front desk, ask for the manager, complain about a bed frame. So I let it go. Somehow we survive such things.

The mystery is when something happens and someone could be blameworthy, just a little, but still. Perhaps a child leaves a tricycle on the walk and someone trips. Or, looking around to answer a Where Question, we bang our shin on a coffee table. Or a document is missing, a bill, a check. If a housekeeper has been around in recent history, she's the first scapegoat. If not, anyone will do.

What could have been bad luck, clumsiness, or simple short-sightedness, becomes a gotcha' moment when someone's around. We assign blame. The front desk is in the room.

I've thought of a few reasons that people lose it, act either as little children or very scary adults when something goes wrong. We've all got at least of few of these working for and against us.

(1) Social Needs

We're born social  animals, and as infants can't get very far in life unless somebody takes us there, cleans us up, too, feeds us, etc. That first social experience, a mixture of biological and learned dependency, is never erased entirely. Our memories packs primitive, but powerful social expectations, Someone else should protect us, anticipate our needs, prevent us from harm, The best parenting, the most charmed childhood, won't erase the imprint. But it might make us less reactive to the thought of abandonment, more independent.

That primitive memory, our infant ego, unfortunately, is fed with wedding vows. (Not that you shouldn't get married, but it is a good thing to discuss).

(2) Generalization

Spouses or intimate partners become our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, all in one. They represent any and all of our people in the here and now and the past, too. Those who have systematically disappointed or hurt us get top billing. We might not have been able to punch back as kids, but maybe we acted out. As adults, the force is with us--displacing anger on a loved ones just feels right.

(3) Stress

Stress, perhaps from hunger or lack of sleep (new parents are particularly susceptible), often makes us testy. Add to that testiness a sense of hopeless over life's inevitable dilemmas and one more potch (rhymes with watch, means slap in Yiddish) becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. A decent crisis, post-potch, even over something that will seem silly later, evokes a  rise in adrenaline. Then the fight or flight relief response kicks in.

Except there's no place to go, because the problem, the crisis, has to be solved, the key found, the broken glass swept up. So flight isn't an option.

But fight is.
You're going to say, but not everyone does this, displaces anger, goes on the offensive when things go wrong. Some of us prefer to mutter to ourselves, shake our heads back and forth, occasionally pound a pillow, even when someone is home to take the blame.
So maybe something else is at work, perhaps annihilation anxiety is the answer. That might explain both the aggression for some people, and self-control for others.
(4) Annihilation anxiety.

If you have ever held an infant, you might be familiar with what is called the startle response, a noticeable shiver that disappears as an infant develops. But some of us know it is still there. We feel it when we're afraid. When we are small we are afraid quite often, everything feels dangerous, a bee buzzing around us, a parent with a frown. This feeling has been described as fear of annihilation, which might sound extreme, but if you're little you just don't know, especially if you've been subjected to child abuse,

Abused kids get negative messages about who they are. They are told that they are deficient, blameworthy, to explain frequent punishments, displacement of a parent's negative emotions about God knows what.

So when things go wrong, an abused person, to avoid more abuse, might jump to apologizing even if they have nothing to do with anything. This averts a crisis, owning responsibility,and functions to avoid annihilation. If they don't apologize, they keep it quiet, have learned that passivity is better than saying more, getting into more trouble.

Alternatively, abused kids identify with the aggressor, learn that the best defense is a good offense.

But not only abused kids learn that. It is a social response to stress that just works. Anger puts everyone off. So use it to your advantage, is the thinking.

The rest of us learn variations of the above, probably much less extreme.

So in the end there are no easy answers, no one size fits all.
But at least I know, when I stub my toe, that I have only myself to blame. And FD? Just a guy with too little sleep, maybe not enough food, and too much stress. That's all.



Mound Builder said...

I know you said there was nothing new here yet I learned some new things. I don't recall that I had ever heard that term "annihilation anxiety" before. I did a little searching to find out more and that was interesting because some of it sounded like the kind of anxiety my mom experienced. She'd been severely agoraphobic when I was a young child. With the help of therapy seemed to overcome it. She had called it "free floating anxiety". Toward the end of her life I remember her telling me that she was so anxious she thought she would fly into bits. She seemed to blame me for various things and that was hard to take, especially since I had agreed to be the person to care for her, manage things. I wondered if the emotional climate of her last years was actually much like it had been when I was little. I learned to be very responsible. And to apologize quickly if I had the slightest idea that I was to blame. I'm so good at that that I tend to assume things are my fault and then often find out later that they really weren't. Learning a little about this annihilation anxiety and thinking of it in relation to my mother makes me sad. She died nearly a decade ago. That time when I cared for her was exceedingly difficult. It wasn't always easy for me to feel sympathetic. I feel sad, to think that my mom, who knew she was facing death (and that would, to me, be the ultimate annihilation anxiety) lashed out at me in various ways because of something I couldn't really understand at the time and that she couldn't help, not really. I'd thought of as very close in adulthood and loved talking to her and then she seemed to take so much out on me. I had to dig deep in myself to keep going, to care for her. So your column was helpful to me. And new. Now I understand a little more.

therapydoc said...

Amazing. I have more on it, thought I had posted it before, but maybe you are right. Maybe it is in a draft someplace. I think for most of us rational humans we don't see this anxiety for what it truly is, totally terrifying and indescribable. But I know it's there for many, especially those treated unkindly. Your situation is a common theme in therapy, especially the apologizing to avoid repercussions. I love how each situation, like yours, is so unique even with the commonalities, and love how you refer to the end years being like the beginning years, because things are exaggerated at the end, as you so perceptively pointed out. Thank you so much, as always, For your comment.

Anonymous said...

It is really interesting to know more about how this works from a more scientific perspective. While I was reading, I was recognizing the same impulses in myself when I have been in this type of situation. I think it is really helpful for families and people in general to know more about this so that they can be more sensitive as well as stop their own natural, but unhealthy responses. Thank you for the professional information!

Emy Watson said...

What is family therapy like please?