"I'm So Mad I Can't See Straight"

Heightened emotions often interfere with other senses distorting perceptions

Posted Oct 17, 2010

Have you been so mad that you can't see straight? Have you had so much fear that you can't hear correctly? Or been in so much pain (physical or emotional) that you can't focus on anything else?

Have you ever stopped to think about what these emotional states mean or how we get into them?

Although these are rare and extreme levels of emotion for most of us, they do happen when we are flooded with a particular feeling. We feel emotion based on what happens to us initially but then we feel feelings based on the story we tell ourselves about what has happened. This secondary emotion can, in turn, override our other senses to the point where a distortion takes place.

As with any major loss, divorce often pushes people to their limits emotionally, mentally, physically, financially, and socially. There is no question but that divorce is incredibly challenging, but the extreme emotion is less often caused by what is actually going on in the moment and more by what people think may happen in the future or remember that has happened in the past.

Let me give an example. Monica was told by her husband that, not only did he want a divorce but that he also wanted 50/50 custody of the kids.

If they had shared equal custody prior to his announcement that he was leaving, that would have been tough enough on Monica, but the reality is that Frank had a very demanding job where working 12 hour days was not uncommon. Monica, on the other hand, had given up her career as a successful architect to raise the two boys.

When Frank first made the announcement, she felt surprised, mad and scared, but the more she thought about how this arrangement would be, compared to how things had been, the more angry and afraid she got.

She ran scenarios in her head about how he wouldn't possibly be able to pick them up from school, get them dinner, do their homework and get them to bed, then get them up in the morning. She imagined the kids eating Mac ‘n Cheese every night, not doing their homework, failing out of school, going to bed late, not being able to sleep without her tucking them in, then getting up late, the terrible chaos of Frank not getting the kids dressed, fed and to school on time while also trying to get himself to work in the city. The kids would be miserable and would feel sad and bad. They needed her.

Simultaneously, she resented the fact that Frank had not been involved with the kids at all while they were married despite the many times she asked him for help. How dare he try to get involved now? She knew that he only wanted the kids so he would pay her less in child support and she thought that putting money over the kid's welfare was despicable.

The ultimate kicker that made Monique flood with negative emotion was when she envisioned herself alone in some depressing apartment while Frank and the kids were having a grand old time somewhere. She had not been alone in years and she had made her entire life revolve around the kids, so to be without them, she was sure she would be lost and lonely.

Although this scenario is one I invented to give an example of this dynamic, it is not far from what really happens to people in a divorce situation. The issues might be about money, the kids, the house, or having to go back to work but there is a great deal of intense emotion over what should (or shouldn't) have happened in the marriage as well as what should (or shouldn't) happen in the future that makes the emotional aspect of divorce at least twice as debilitating.

If you are experiencing emotional flooding as a result of a divorce, stop and ask yourself why you are feeling these intense feelings. Is it because you are poor in this moment or is it because you are afraid you will be poor? Is it because your spouse truly wasn't present for your kids during the marriage or is it that you believed he or she wasn't there enough? Is it because you know for sure that you will never be hired or get a date at your age or is it that you are afraid you won't because you can't imagine it right now?

You are entitled to your feelings and you need to grieve the loss of your spouse and family unit as you knew it. But to the extent that you tell yourself stories about what could have or should have been or what could or should be done in the future, you will likely be flooded with more intense emotions and you will likely experience some level of added distortion or discomfort as a result.

Try to keep your emotions in check by asking yourself, "Am I upset because something just happened or I just got some bad news from someone?" versus, "Am I upset because I'm thinking about the past or the future and telling myself a story that is making me feel worse?

If it's the latter, do your best to uncover the story and ask yourself if it's really true. If you're not sure, ask a trusted friend.

Do what you can to stop the stories and you will feel better almost immediately. You can't avoid the raw grief you will experience as a result of your divorce, but you can avoid the added layer of pain.

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