Detecting Distorted Emotions

A young boy was in my office on his first visit. I smiled, knowing that I had two large cupboards full of intriguing toys  that would help the child explore his own inner conflicts and gain a healthier perspective. I knew this boy had been seriously abused by his parents.  l was starting a relationship with this  child that I hoped would result in his feeling better about himself.  In our first moments together, the child looked threatened and very angry with me.  I was the enemy, the monster —an adult. This was hate at first sight. What was going on? We had hardly spoken.

This case is clear. The child's typical experience with important adults in his life  led him to the conclusion that all adults are threatening and mean—not to be trusted. In my years of working with traumatized children, I saw this response over and over again, children responding to me at the outset of therapy as if I was another one of those mean things called adults.  Some coped by lashing out; others clamed up, others ran for hiding under my desk or behind a chair. I knew this was my starting point with such children—and I knew what I wanted to help them discover was that not all adults are abusive.  It was typically a journey that would take months. The results were wonderfully rewarding—children regaining their ability to value themselves and to learn to differentiate those adults who would harm them from those who would never harm them. Their hope for a happier future was coming alive.

This same pattern, of responding to neutral or loving others as if they pose a threat to us, is quite common. It isn't restricted to abused children.

Jackie, a young adult, lives with her partner, Joe. One day she sees Joe having lunch with a single, attractive co-worker at a local restaurant. He does not see her. She  goes home, paralyzed with anger and hurt. Her impulse is to run away. She starts to pack her bags. Her pain is so intense. Joe seemed so wonderful, but what would you expect—he's just like all the rest, untrustworthy! Joe comes home two hours later. Jackie will not talk with him. He sees her bags packed and he is totally perplexed. He suggests that they go out to eat at their favorite restaurant and Jackie explodes, accusing him of betraying her. What Jackie does not know is that Joe had no romantic interest in this woman and was only grabbing a bite to eat with a co-worker.

I was shopping at a popular chain store. I turned a corner and saw a well-dressed man. I was instantly repulsed by him and fled. I found myself two aisles over—getting away from him. He was a stranger. What could generate such a powerful reaction?   Moments later, I put it into perspective. He was a dead-ringer for a corrupt politician—polished haircut and all. I was so repulsed by that politician that I wanted to get away from his corruption. There was only one glitch in my automatic response. This guy was not the politician.  He was probably a decent guy.

Road rage is another common example. Mary is riding in the car with her husband, Frank. Someone cuts him off. He swears "You #$%*#!  You're not going to get away with this." He puts his foot on the gas and Mary simultaneously tries to put her foot on the brake, but all she is doing is pressing into the floor of the passenger's footwell. Frank speeds alongside the "jerk" and honks, then cuts him off. He finishes with a satisfied "There—I showed him!"

A man, newly married, hears his wife asking him to please pick his wet towels off the bathroom floor and put them on the rack to dry.  He resists. She begs and pleads with him. Why is he so stubborn with such small requests? He does not know why she is always picking on him. Experience has taught him that all women are nags and he refuses to give into any woman's critical and petty demands. Their relationship goes on a negative spiral towards divorce court.

You can probably think of times in  your life when you overreacted. You mistook a person or his actions. Sometimes you are aware that your response is exaggerated. You know it does not make sense, but that is not enough to help you make sense of it.  What is going on in all these situations?

In their book Couple Skills, McKay, Fanning and Paleg, discuss this very problem. They explain  how my fleeing the "corrupt politician" occurred. Even though I never met this person, his hairstyle and height triggered in my mind a powerful, negative familiarity and I reacted as if this  stranger were the corrupt one.  I reacted on autopilot, defensively, and attributed to this complete stranger motives and character traits that were probably far from the truth. As these authors state "you make assumptions about them that may have no basis in reality, you draw inferences that may not pertain to them at all… You superimpose on one person a set of assumptions  and inferences that really belong to another."

In the case of the abused child, this relationship is clear. The traumatized child initially responded to me as you would expect him to respond to the abusive parent—angrily, defensively or withdrawing in anxious terror.

In the case of Jackie, she feels devastated when she sees Joe with his attractive co-worker. She copes the way she knows how—she packs her bags to leave just as she did when, as an 18-year-old, she discovered her father's betrayal of her mother. She could not bear to go through this hurt again, and falsely assumed that Joe was betraying her as her father had betrayed her mom. Only, he wasn't.

In the case of the  mistaken politician, I later realized that my "file folder" in my mind titled "corrupt, deceptive people" had been triggered open by just the resemblance of this person to a corrupt  person.  I had my own personal experiences from childhood with people who look polished on the outside, but used their finesse to hurt. I instantaneously responded to him as I have done to such people from my own past.

In the case of Frank's road rage, notice what Frank said aloud, "You're not going to get away with this…There – I showed him!"   But he never met this other person. Perhaps it was a sweet little old lady who swerved when she noticed she was not in the exit lane and needed to get into it.  Frank was on  autopilot, responding to being cut off and taken advantage of. This is how his older brother treated him throughout his childhood. They shared a room and it was hell for Frank. He learned to cope  by striking back. Unfortunately his childhood coping strategy, to retaliate at the smallest provocation, is making his wife terrified of his inexplicable angry outbursts.

The newly married man who refuses his wife's reasonable requests to put his wet towels on the drying rack is responding to her as he did to his genuinely critical mother. He refused to give into his mother's critical demands. He was the rotten kid in her eyes; she was the rotten mom. When his wife asks for a reasonable request, he does not view it as reasonable. It sounds all too familiar. He falsely concludes that his wife is just like his mother. A worsening deterioration of the marriage ensues.

How can you detect such damaging distortions? How can you train yourself to regain your objectivity in such situations? How can the newly married man learn that his wife is very different from his overbearing critical  mother? First you need to tune into your own powerful negative responses that seem out of context for some current situation. Such reactions have some telltale signs. McKay et al identify some  characteristics to help you recognize signs of distortion:

    1. A sudden rush of intense negative emotions (e.g., road rage).
    2. A sense that your powerful negative feelings are old, recurring and painfully familiar.
    3. An awareness that the feelings exceed the provocation.
    4. Reading highly negative motives into the person who triggered your emotions (e.g., in the road rage case, the husband yelling to the faceless stranger in the car You're not going to get away with this.")
    5. Fearing a negative outcome from the person when no real danger is present (Jackie's certainty that Joe had broken her trust as her dad had.)

What is the main challenge you are facing if you're trying to regain your objectivity about the actual person in front of you, and avoid treating them as if they were ghosts from  your past? The main skill is training yourself to differentiate the current person from the person in the past.

With the abused children, I spent hours playing with  "adult" dolls. Some of the adult dolls were like the abusive folks they were familiar with. Some of the adult dolls would never abuse the children. Never! I worked to help the children develop coping strategies that helped them differentiate damaging adults from good adults.

In Jackie's case, she needs to learn to identify how Joe differs from her father. In Frank's case, he needs to discover that sometimes gentle, old ladies swerve into exit lanes and are not out to get him as was the case with his brother. The newly married man needs to differentiate his reasonable wife from his unreasonable mother.

Once you identify your typical problem area, and the source of your powerful emotion in your own past,  you can guard against such ghosts from your past.  You can identify and practice more reasonable, contextually accurate, healthier ways to respond, as the abused children did, and preserve important relationships in your life.