No one ever said, "I forgot that stoves get hot. I knew it at one time, but it slipped my mind." A good mind never forgets an injury. It will always remind us of painful lessons, even when old threats have gone away. It can dig quite a hole in its efforts to protect us from dangers that no longer exist. Sometimes, we are best served by ignoring our minds. That's easiest when we understand what they're trying to say. Let me tell you a story about that.
Why Andy is Hiding from Meg*
After five years of marriage to Andy, Meg is beginning to think about leaving. She loves him, but she wonders if the two of them will ever break out of the pattern into which they've fallen. Meg would tell you that Andy is the sweetest guy in the world, until they get into an argument. That's when he seems to completely withdraw from her.
Their most recent argument concerned the dog. When no one was home, he managed to steal a cake that Andy had left sitting too close to the edge of the counter. Meg came home to discover a broken plate, a few crumbs on the floor, and a shame-faced dog hiding in the bedroom. Meg was angry, not so much at the loss of the cake as with Andy's absent-mindedness.
When Andy came home, he sensed Meg's anger before he saw her. Perhaps he noticed subtle cues about the situation - the missing cake, or maybe the fact that Meg didn't greet him as she usually does. Andy was skilled at recognizing the early warning signs of trouble, for reasons we will discuss shortly.
As Meg heard Andy arrive that day, her minor frustration about the cake grew into anxiety about the looming, painful argument, as well as anger at the thought that she had been shortchanged in her marriage. Where had her attentive and caring husband gone?
Though they each tried to avoid the argument, Meg found herself asking Andy why he had left the cake within the dog's reach. Andy, in turn, made a feeble attempt to defend himself, then became silent and sullen, giving the impression that he didn't care. As usual, the more he would disengage from the conversation, the more she would pursue and try to force him to participate. Just as they had each feared, they lost themselves to the pattern that had become so ingrained.
Underlying this pattern was something that Meg didn't know about Andy. His seemingly sullen, uncaring behavior wasn't a chance development. It was not new, and it was not intended to evoke her frustration. Quite the contrary. It was old behavior that had served him well earlier in life, protecting him from people who were angry.
Andy grew up with a mother who drank heavily. While not physically abusive, alcohol made her moods and her words unpredictable. Andy never knew when she would fly into a rage.
Young Andy was unable to predict what would send her into a drunken rage. Things that would anger her on one day would earn praise the next, and vice versa. That's a recipe for an anxious kid. He tried to follow the rules, but they changed daily.
Luckily, Andy's mind was there to protect him. It gave him two invaluable survival skills. First, he became adept at discerning the early warning sign - an empty wine glass on the counter, a subtle shift in his mother's mood, or the tense quietude that preceded her anger.
Second, he learned to get out of the way. Whenever he was able to predict her anger, he would hide in his room before it appeared. But sometimes he missed the warning signs, and this is where Andy's history intersects with Meg.
Whenever young Andy found himself on the receiving end of an angry, incoherent lecture, he would practice perfect deference: he would become silent and avert his gaze, not daring to speak for fear that any response might evoke even more anger and insults He learned that submissive deference was the shortest route to the safety of his bedroom.
Andy's young mind did precisely what it was meant to do. It increased his odds of survival by placating an angry loved one. Now, all these years later, his mind is still using the same old strategy in response to Meg's frustration, even though the submissive deference that was once effective is now counterproductive. He wants to speak, but it feels as if his mind has shut down his ability to form words.
Meg perceives his deference as callousness, and so she becomes even more frustrated, which evokes more deference from Andy, which in turn increases Meg's frustration, and so on. Andy's mind is digging quite a hole, with all the best intentions.
If I were Andy's mind, I would tell him something like this: You must have done something stupid and careless to make her so angry. Stand still and keep your mouth shut so she doesn't become even angrier. Andy doesn't realize it, but his mind is behaving as if he were still ten years old and avoiding his mother's wrath.
The Secret to Loving with a Human Mind
Andy's mind is making a couple of errors. He is reacting to his wife as if she were his mother, and he is reacting as if he were still a little boy rather than a grown man. And Andy's mind is doing what most minds will do when a survival strategy is failing. Try more! Do it harder! Even though the old strategy is clearly making things worse, minds turn to history in times of stress. Our minds make mistakes like this in order to keep us safe.
We can't really blame Andy. My mind does the same sort of thing, though in different circumstances, and so does yours if it is normal. But here's a little secret, and it's an important one: we don't have to obey our minds.
Ignoring the mind involves a couple of steps. First is developing insight. Andy's best hope for breaking this cycle is to recognize what his mind is trying to accomplish. A good therapist can speed that process along and save him years of pointless battles and heartache.
Next, he can learn to disobey his mind, to speak up when it is trying to silence him, and to choose his own behavior when the mind is stuck in the past. That can be a terribly uncomfortable thing to do at first, but it gets easier with practice.
For all the Andy's out there, here's a little technique to try next time your mind gets fired up over your safety. When it is trying to protect you from things like rejection, judgment, and sadness - whether it's in the game of love or elsewhere - try to think of your mind as a loving but overly protective sibling. Let it have its say, express a little gratitude, and carry on.
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It. You can read the introduction and find other goodies at guidetothemind.com.
* Meg and Andy's story is Adapted from The User's Guide to the Human Mind. Many thanks to New Harbinger Publications for permission.