When You Stop Making Sense

I have vestigial behaviors. So, I’m betting, do you.

dog-sleepingThe textbook definition of a vestigial behavior is something that made sense genetically at one point for a species, but is no longer relevant. Like a dog turning around and around on a bare floor before lying down, because in the wild, that’s what it would have done to make its bed among grasses.

But what I’m talking about are behaviors that made sense in our lives at one point – usually for self-defense or protection or comfort – that we continue long past the point of sense.

In my case, I conserve energy, because there was a long time in my life when it was essential to my survival that I do so. Even less productively, I spend time worrying in advance about how to conserve my energy, sometimes to the point of paralysis: “Okay, so the garden needs a fall clean-up, and I want to hang Halloween lights, and the kitchen is a mess. But I don’t dare do all those things in one day. So maybe I’ll just sit here and surf Facebook instead.”

Clearly, I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel like I’m out of the woods, even though it’s been almost six years since I was bedridden from toxic mold, and I’ve regained my strength to the point that I’m walking a mile a day, driving long distances, standing and giving presentations, flying around the country, and living a mostly normal life.

I find, to my surprise, that some lizard-brain part of me is still fearful, and even superstitious. “Don’t get cocky,” that part of my brain whispers. “Don’t do that one thing that might push you back into devastating illness. And because you can’t know in advance what that ‘one thing’ might be, probably it’s safer if you just don’t do anything.”

Vestigial behaviors can be harmless. But in my case – and perhaps in yours – mine is keeping me from living full-out. It keeps me small. It gives me the illusion but not the reality of safety. It seduces me into not doing things I very much want to do.

I consider my vestigial behaviors a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There was absolutely a time in my life when doing something as simple as walking a block could send me into a physical crash that would leave me in bed for days. It’s no longer true, but I act as if it is. It’s not this extreme, but it’s not unlike a combat veteran flinching when a car backfires. The threat is no longer there, but the fear remains.

The thing is, fear is a bully. And, like a bully, it’s fairly quick to back down when calmly confronted. Bullies love drama and adrenaline; they feed on it and push back harder.

So I don’t feed my fear. I treat it like the overgrown child it actually is. “Look here,” I say to my fear. “There’s a lot I want to get done today, but there’s nothing I HAVE to get done. So I’ll just take it one step at a time, and we’ll see how it goes from there.” Then I smile, because nothing deflates a bully like a show of strength. “I’ve got this,” I say.

We all have stuff we do that might have made sense once upon a time, but that no longer does. My stepfather shakes cartons of milk because when he was a boy, milk whey arrived separated from the cream. My dog digs and digs furiously at my sheets, trying to create a cavity into which he can settle comfortably. In a perhaps apocryphal story, a family cuts the ends off a meatloaf before baking it without knowing why, because a couple generations ago, the matriarch of the family didn’t have a big enough pan.

Some of it is harmless ritual. Some if it is self-sabotage. Your freedom lies in your ability to discern the difference.

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I have vestigial behaviors. So, I’m betting, do you.

The textbook definition of a vestigial behavior is something that made sense genetically at one point for a species, but is no longer relevant. Like a dog turning around and around on a bare floor before lying down, because in the wild, that’s what it would have done to make its bed among grasses.

But what I’m talking about are behaviors that made sense in our lives at one point–usually for self-defense or protection or comfort–that we continue long past the point of sense.

In my case, I conserve energy, because there was a long time in my life when it was essential to my survival that I do so. Even less productively, I spend time worrying in advance about how to conserve my energy, sometimes to the point of paralysis: “Okay, so the garden needs a fall clean-up, and I want to hang Halloween lights, and the kitchen is a mess. But I don’t dare do all those things in one day. So maybe I’ll just sit here and surf Facebook instead.”

Clearly, I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel like I’m out of the woods, even though it’s been almost six years since I was bedridden from toxic mold, and I’ve regained my strength to the point that I’m walking a mile a day, driving long distances, standing and giving presentations, flying around the country, and living a mostly normal life.

I find, to my surprise, that some lizard-brain part of me is still fearful, and even superstitious. “Don’t get cocky,” that part of my brain whispers. “Don’t do that one thing that might push you back into devastating illness. And because you can’t know in advance what that ‘one thing’ might be, probably it’s safer if you just don’t do anything.”

Vestigial behaviors can be harmless. But in my case–and perhaps in yours–mine is keeping me from living full-out. It keeps me small. It gives me the illusion but not the reality of safety. It seduces me into not doing things I very much want to do.

I consider my vestigial behaviors a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There was absolutely a time in my life when doing something as simple as walking a block could send me into a physical crash that would leave me in bed for days. It’s no longer true, but I act as if it is. It’s not this extreme, but it’s not unlike a combat veteran flinching when a car backfires.The threat is no longer there, but the fear remains.

The thing is, fear is a bully. And, like a bully, it’s fairly quick to back down when calmly confronted. Bullies love drama and adrenaline; they feed on it and push back harder.

So I don’t feed my fear. I treat it like the overgrown child it actually is. “Look here,” I say to my fear. “There’s a lot I want to get done today, but there’s nothing I HAVE to get done. So I’ll just take it one step at a time, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

We all have stuff we do that might have made sense once upon a time, but that no longer does. My stepfather shakes cartons of milk because when he was a boy, milk whey separated from the cream. My dog digs and digs furiously at my sheets, trying to create a cavity into which he can settle comfortably. In a perhaps apocryphal story, a family cuts the ends off a meatloaf before baking it without knowing why, because a couple generations ago, the matriarch of the family didn’t have a big enough pan.

Some of it is harmless ritual. Some if it is self-sabotage. Your freedom lies in your ability to discern the difference.

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