Monday, March 29, 2010

Stinking Thinking

I'm still pondering the idea of the prison of the mind. This morning on the way to work it occurred to me that projection is one way we imprison ourselves. It can have its place if it makes us brave, but most of the times it's poisonous thinking. When I was a drinker, I was absolutely convinced people were judging me left and right, so I continually took offense at things (why do you think drunks get in fights all the time? We take imagined slights and blow them way out of proportion.)

Someone looks at you the wrong way? That's personal. I'm either going to strike out at you in some way, or I'm going to internalize that and beat myself up about it. What did I do? What could I have done differently? Is it my clothes, my hair, my weight? Is it because I'm gay? I'd build an entire mythology around a single glance--and it is more than likely the "look" that I got had nothing to do with me whatsoever. All of that was just projection.

Projection works by taking an inner feeling and projecting it elsewhere, outside of ourselves, on to something or someone else.

It's no wonder I have had problems with anxiety. And I mean serious problems. I have a psychiatric diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, I take Cymbalta for it, and I also have prescriptions for a beta blocker (propranolol) and ativan (a benzo in the valium family). Now that I've been sober for almost seven months, I realize I hardly take the ativan and propranolol at all. The Cymbalta is another matter; I have to take that every morning because it's a drug you can't just stop taking. You have to step down off of it under medical supervision.

The thing is, I always thought my problems with anxiety could be traced back to my stepmother. I've written about her before: she was the kind of parent who, if I brought home all A's on a report card and one B, would punish me for the B. When I was reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment yesterday, I was intrigued to discover that one way the guards exerted control and got compliance was by being impossible to please; they devised a string of petty, meaningless, and sometimes inconsistent or contradictory, rules for the prisoners to follow. If a prisoner duly followed one rule, it might inadvertently mean he was breaking another, so no matter what he did, it would be wrong. Or they'd just find another, new reason to be displeased. My stepmother had mastered that art. For instance, she forbade us to watch television because it was bad for us and we weren't "old enough" to watch, yet she thought I spent way too much time with my nose in a book. I was directed to find something else to do with my time. So, once I colored a picture. You know, the kind where you fill the page with different blocks of color, then cover the whole thing with black crayon? Then you etch out a drawing on top of the black, with surprises of color coming through? I was pretty pleased with my effort and, when it was finished, brought it downstairs to show her.

Her response: "What a waste of your crayons!"

That's a rather trivial example, and I couldn't have been more than eight or nine. But this kind of stuff happened all the time, with less trivial examples. By the time I was a teenager, it had gotten to the point that I felt no matter what I did, it would never be good enough, if good at all. There would always be some little thing I'd overlooked that would open me to criticism, punishment, and withdrawal of affection (not that I ever got any, but I did cling to that hope at least for a while). Finally I gave up and just turned into a robot-person with no feelings at all except for a gnawing anxiety that at any moment I might be sent outside to pick my own switch off the forsythia bush for some violation I could not have foreseen. I would stand there and take the beating and then agree, "Yes, ma'am, I won't forget to rinse out the cat bowl before filling it with water," or whatever crime I'd committed.

I think perhaps I started drinking at the outset because it relieved the constant anxiety. That strategy worked for some years. But then the assuaging alcohol turned on me in that sneaky, heinous way it has. I never did learn to cope with anything in a healthy way. I developed a toolbag of coping mechanisms that at some point stopped serving me well. Projecting my uncomfortable feelings onto others so I don't have to look at them is just one of them.

Here's how it works (aside from the imagined dirty look slight already mentioned.) Say you're afraid that, on the job, you're a bit of a fraud. You're pretty sure your coworkers have a leg up because they've been there longer, or they've got an extra training certificate you don't have, or because you stretched the truth a little bit on your resume. But everybody does that; it's practically expected. You know you're perfectly competent and can do the work just fine; but you feel a teensy bit like a fraud anyway. (This is a common feeling for women, by the way.) One day an idea of yours gets challenged at work in a meeting. You get defensive and dig in. You feel insulted. Your idea is just as good as anybody else's, maybe even better. They're just afraid of you. That's it. They're afraid of your power. They're afraid you're going to snap up the next promotion that comes up. By going after your idea, they are trying to make you look like a fraud. You start listing all your qualifications and they look at you, bemused. "What's that got to do with anything?" their expressions say.

Oops. You've just projected all your feelings onto them. And in so doing, you also just showed any canny person in your group that you secretly feel insecure about yourself.

So, you go home and rail at your coworkers, rail at your boss, and rail at yourself, and a big margarita starts to look pretty damn good. You don't resolve the real problem, which is the inner feeling of fraud and what healthy steps you can take to resolve that, and instead you come to hate your judgmental, competitive coworkers, and the situation is set up to start snowballing at work every time someone disagrees with you about any little thing.

Projection is powerful stuff. Poison thinking. Stinking thinking. If you think somebody is pointing fingers of blame at you, pause for a moment. Do you know for a fact they are? If they haven't outright told you so, consider that the blame is, in actuality, guilt you're feeling about something that you haven't allowed yourself to acknowledge. Look at it. You can do that without attaching a judgment to it. Embrace it, own it, and let it go. Only then can you let it go.

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