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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Fear: Friend or Foe?

fearful man, maggie mcreynolds blog, Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69My son tells me he is afraid. “There are so many things to be scared of,” he says. “I don’t understand the point of fear. Is it to keep you from doing stuff?”

Well, yes. And no. frightened guy

Life without fear would be dangerous indeed, because fear can provide useful information that might help keep you alive. Consider sufferers of congenital analgia, a rare and total insensitivity to pain. People with this disease often don’t live past age 25, because as children, it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to learn to avoid danger when they simply can’t feel the consequences.

While the rest of us are learning—often the hard way—that fire burns, that knives cut, that heavy objects break bones—those with congenital analgia get no such feedback from their brains. They can get third-degree burns from a scalding bath or cut off a finger without feeling a thing.

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Help! There’s a Menacing Blob in the Backyard!

scary shadow, maggie mcreynolds blogI’m seriously nearsighted. Have been ever since I was a kid. So at night, when I took off my glasses and lay in bed looking out the window, the normal, everyday stuff of my backyard was transformed into something purely terrifying.

The swing set became a surreal giant arthropod. The Weber grill, a man crouched next to the back door. Every bush and shrub took on a menacing shape: a bear, a hulking monster, the mean lady down the street who hated our dog.

The thing is, everything in the backyard was just as it had been in the daylight, when I’d had my glasses on. All that had changed was my perception of it. Lost in the darkness, blinded by my own myopia, I could and did work myself into a complete state of panic over things that weren’t even there.

I wear contact lenses now, and I am often too tired when I take them out to spend much time gazing out at the backyard. But I can still scare myself quite easily when I find myself, lost and temporarily nearsighted, in the darkness of pain, anger, depression, or fear.

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