Bad Mood Rising

Things were tense around here the other day. And by “things” I mean Al, my husband, was tense. And I do not make it easier on him, because when he gets tense, I get tenser. When he gets angry, I get angrier. When he’s in a bad mood, I catch it like a cold. If I could change just one thing about our relationship, I would change the way we interact in tense times.

It’s not even like those fights (some might say “disagreements” but at our house it’s louder than that) are about anything important. What’s happening underneath the surface tension is not even evident to us. We just get locked in battle and both end up defending our side and things just snowball.

It’s ridiculous. I hate it. I want to change the way we are with each other when things are not perfect. So of course I googled it. “What to do when my husband starts fight” or some such pithy search term.

I found out some interesting things. First, Al didn’t start the fight. I did! Because he was tense, I could tell by the way he was acting and the things he was saying and finally I was just sick of it and yelled at him to stop being so mean.

“I’m not being mean, you are!” Al said. Yes, at 64 years of age, this is the level of our discourse when we are upset.

Note that I “yelled” and Al “said” ~ he might have said it in a fed-up tone. We have been here before. All too often. I’m so tired of it. But I’ve also grown used to it. I had just about given up hope for change. I’d just have to “put up” with him when he was in a bad mood.

Then an article from Psychology Today gave me a much needed new perspective. And a way to fix the way we fight. It is true that I can’t change Al’s bad mood. It’s in the house, and I have to deal with it. Because I easily “catch” other people’s moods (and this is true for many people, not just me) it’s almost as difficult for me to change the way I deal with Al’s moods as it is to make it like his bad mood never happened.

But hey, I love learning, so I read on. We can’t control that another person has a bad mood and we can’t control that we catch that bad mood. What we CAN do, although it’s tricky, is to temper our reaction to that mood. For example, I yell. What I can learn to do instead is to take a breath and think about how I want to yell in the moment, but remind myself that that’s what I always do, and it makes things worse, not better.

So I can feel the way I’m catching Al’s mood, feel the emotion of it, and, instead of yelling, think about a better way to respond. I did start out responding better. Yelling was not my first response. First I tried to be compassionate. “I know how you feel.” I reminded him of a specific instance that had happened to me (losing track of important paperwork) which was exactly what he was irritated and upset about. I think I said “I know how you feel” three times in response to his irritated “Where is it?” His bad mood wasn’t soothed by my empathy. So I got out my journal and vented a little bit in it. That always helps me. His bad mood didn’t like that, either.

So then I yelled. What I could have done was just say “I need some space for a little while” and take my journal into my sweet little writing room. That would have solved everything. Al wouldn’t have said anything to that. He would have been okay with me leaving the room, dignity intact.

Part of what I begin to feel when the yelling and swearing starts is embarrassed and sad. I do not like yelling and swearing at my husband. I want to act mature and loving at all times at my age. But because my emotions are so many and so huge at these times, some get buried under other ones, which makes me even angrier. Because anger is the top emotion for me when we fight.

Al is calm and I am excitable. One of the many things I loved about him from the first was how zen he is. I wanted to be like that! I still do! Al would have gotten over his bad mood fairly quickly had I not lost my temper. Instead, he dug in when I yelled, as he always does. A man has his pride, even a almost always calm man.

We both want to win. But I realize now that I want to win at more than who can yell the loudest (it is always me) and who can swear most creatively and fluently (again, always me). I want to win at taking my own emotions in hand. I want to learn to be excellent at controlling my reactions. I still want, after all these years, to be calm like Al. With disagreements and a lot of other things, too.

So yesterday I told Al that I am up for his bad moods and tense moments in future. And I really need to be as he is retiring soon and we will be together a lot. We will be together in our little Florida condo much longer than we’ve ever been before. So any moodiness on Al’s part (and there will be moodiness and even, occasionally, snark) will be good practice in taming my own angry responses.

I’d like to tame all kinds of my typical responses, and not just to Al. For example, my craving response to even the thought of sugar. I can think about my favorite bakery’s white chocolate cranberry scones for hours a day for several days. Not even kidding. What this does is set me up for failure, because the next time I am in any store that sells any type of sugary treat, I will buy a lot of it and eat it all.

If I could tame the beast that is my response to just those two things, it would be a big life win for me. Mental and physical. So, I’ll see how it goes. And I’ll keep you posted!

Confronting My Heart

Photo on 9-27-14 at 5.15 PMOpenness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Mix these five ingredients, psychology says, and you have the human personality. Add intersections of relationship and environment and the impact of each trait lessens or heightens. And none are all good or all bad, either, although the word “neurotic” has never been a favorite of mine. Much to my surprise, I recently learned that because I have, at times, suffered acute anxiety to the point of panic, that’s part of my personality. And the phobias that have been part of my life for so long are part of being neurotic, too.

Everyone suffers from anxiety. Neuroticism, like all the traits, is a spectrum, everyone falls somewhere on it. I just happen to be left of center. Way. Or I was. I’ve been getting better and that’s because without understanding why or even what I was doing, I was working on it, intuitively.

My wedding anniversary was this past weekend. There I am in a photo on “the day” happy not to be cooking but not really looking all wedding anniversary happy. That’s because my marriage has been going through some changes. It seems that as my anxiety lessens, and I confront each of my fears and face them down, my marriage takes another hit. Which is ironic because my husband is the one who first led me to seek help. We were driving and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was telling him I was scared and could he slow down as I held my hands in front of my face. “What, do you think we’re going to die?” He was really angry. “YES!” I said. “I think that. It feels like that.” A beat of silence. “Well you’re just crazy. You better go see somebody.”

Neither of us knew I was having a panic attack brought on by a phobia related to driving. He just knew crazy when he saw it. So I made an appointment with my doctor, who referred me to a psychiatrist. Lovely woman. She gave me the information, and the help, I needed for that particular phobia. I also learned that it’s really not crazy to be afraid for your life if someone is driving drunk or high, if there is black ice or a blizzard or a severe rainstorm. Those are pretty natural reactions to driving in dangerous conditions. Beyond the pale, I had those kind of reactions all the time, for no reason. But I kept at therapy, and I got better.

After psychotherapy, I started to crave calm. I’ve always been impatient and anxious, busy and social. Those things didn’t feel so right anymore, so I took up, and have kept up, yoga, meditation, prayer, visualization, nature walks, vegetarianism, periods of retreat, alcohol moderation, and yes, medication for when the panic gets severe. After 25 years, I have crossed several former phobias off my list. I am no longer afraid of speaking in public, flying, or heights. I drive with very little anxiety except for brief flashbacks due to a recent accident that totaled my car and bruised my body and mind.

That’s my history of anxiety. What I didn’t know was that my problems took a toll on my husband. And my marriage. He is not a nurturing type. He’s not given to huge emotional gestures. He really doesn’t get it or me and even after all these years I cope alone, which is fine. He never asks me for help with his personality issues. Or anything else, for that matter. He actually likes being in charge of stuff. Which has led to some problems now that I’m sliding more toward normal on that neuroticism spectrum. Because now that I’m less focused on my own wellness, I want to help decide the wellness of our future.

Neuroticism never defined me. I have other, better, stronger traits that have led me to follow my dreams and do some things I never imagined. Persistence is part of “conscientiousness” which really just means you finish what you start. Like that novel. Or you do what you say you will, like send the finished novel to publishers. I have that persistent thing in vast quantities, which helped me publish my books way more than my writing skills.

Twelve years blogging? Again, that’s just me following through. Seeing something to the finish. I’m pretty open to new experiences, too. Yeah, funny for a fraidy cat. But I never jump in the water fearing sea serpents. And I’ve never met one yet. So, I’m not an extrovert. I do a great imitation of one. Even I didn’t know I was an introvert until Myers-Briggs told me so. And it’s a good thing I am, because writers need a lot of time alone. Those words take time to put on paper.

You might thing agreeableness is a wonderful trait. I have a lot of that and it’s caused me as much trouble as the phobic stuff. Because when you always say yes, some of those things you are yessing to are things you should be no-ing. And my Mr of 29 years now doesn’t much like the word no coming from the lips of his formerly compliant wife. He doesn’t much like some of my ideas for changing things up in this relationship of ours. And I can’t believe how long I lived with things the way they were. Bet he wishes he never called me crazy.

Short Path to Happy

elephant

Today my son Tim washed an elephant in Thailand. Tomorrow he’s attending a wedding. Yesterday there was a coup. That happened in Bangkok, just a few hours from where he and his wife are vacationing. Maybe you didn’t hear the political news. It was swift and non-violent, a military take-over of the government that has been brewing for months. Still. My baby!

Was so worried, I read a story about how to be happy in Psychology Today by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. Turns out that “actions that lead us to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even a dash of guilt are associated with the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of people’s lives.”

This amazing fact cheered me, and not just because of Tim. Truth is, I’m a happy person and so is he. And now I know that it’s okay to also be curious, try new things, never stop believing in your dreams, going for it even when it feels risky and scary, especially if it feels risky and scary. Because that’s what we do, Tim and I. It’s the way I have lived my gypsy life, and I guess some of that is in his DNA, too.

As a novelist, I never thought about being a public person. I’m a private person. I rejoiced in the internet and the fact that I could promote my work in my pajamas. But then I wrote the book of my heart. The book I was most afraid to write. And I loved it. So does my publisher. It’s a contemporary novel with modern problems: love, betrayal, divorce, addiction, child custody, family, home. So now that Luke’s #1 Rule is close to publication, I started to think “I should do a book tour.” Not a virtual tour, a real, live tour. Just where the book is set, along the lakeshore of our beautiful Michigan peninsula. I have never taken such a big risk. No wait, yes I have. This is just another step in a life full of “what’s next?” 

Right this minute, what makes me happy is knowing Tim and Alicia are getting out of Thailand safe. I refuse to consider any other option. And I am happy that the elephants had their bath.

Introvert in Extrovertville

100_4262That’s not me in the middle of all the testosterone . It’s my friend Jan, an extrovert. I was hiding in the kitchen or pouring myself another glass of Chardonnay, because I am an introvert and that’s what we do at parties. We find one person to talk to, or have a glass of wine when the party grows.

As an introvert, I am at my best one-on-one. Too much time with lots of people makes me long for bed & a good book. I dread parties unless they are among long-time friends, and even then I am the first to leave. Unfortunately, my extroverted husband likes to be the last one standing. We compromise.

Many introverts suffer from social anxiety, now a recognized psychological condition. This explains why some people drink too much at parties. They are self-medicating. I have full blown phobias, so a little anxiety is like being a half pound overweight for me. Many extroverts are chronically overbooked and dive head-first into center stage, where they bask with pleasure.

I love people. I really do. But I also crave an abundance of alone time. I mean, like weeks and months where I go into my writing room and only come out to eat and sleep. I thought when I joined a writer’s organization, I’d meet kindred souls. Instead I found myself chairing a conference committee, the second in the last few years.

Introverts should not chair committees.

May is conference month and it cannot come and go soon enough for me. The event itself will be a challenge, but it’s the preparation and dealing with a committee of extroverts that really has me in a tizzy. I like to do things alone. Or with one other person. I do not shine when there are a dozen writers revising a simple letter, which is happening now and driving me insane.

The real trick for an introvert who finds herself in an extrovert-filled situation is to double up on the meditation. Or medication, or both. Because if we don’t, our nerves will fray until we lash out at others who are simply being who they are: extroverts.