He who hesitates is lost, or so the aphorism goes. However, in the face of an overwhelming emotion or a frightening, threatening event, I’ve found that a slight hesitation can make the critical difference between doing something I regret and doing something skillful.
For the last four years, I have been studying a martial art called Aikido. It is unusual among fighting arts in that its creator intended it to stop or defuse an attack without injuring the attacker. One of the rules that my teacher frequently raises in class is get off the line. The idea is that if a destructive force is headed your way, it’s a good idea to not be there when it arrives. Usually, when we’re training, we’re practicing particular techniques, so it is easy to start rushing things; I frequently get off the line and then go directly to the technique we’re studying. Our teacher is trying to get us to stop that rush forward. He explains that once you’re off the line, you can take time to evaluate the situation. Is the attacker moving forward? Backward? Down? Has he changed the attack? If you don’t pause, you will likely miss all of this important information.
Emotionally, I think that it may be possible to do something similar. When I’m experiencing the first rush of anger, it’s very satisfying to lash out. But afterward, I often am ashamed and embarrassed at my loss of control, and I may have hurt someone emotionally (thankfully, I don’t hurt people physically), and very likely I’ve frightened whomever I’ve blown up at. It’s likely that I’ve damaged a relationship by acting out.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that expressing rage rarely does anything good for me. What if I could — mentally — step aside slightly and get a moment of perspective when that flood of anger starts rising? Could I avoid acting on the emotion? I think I can, at least a lot of the time.
In Aikido, there are many levels of practice. The physical techniques can be very interesting to learn, but as you get more familiar with the concepts, it starts to occur to you that there may be no reason to wait until you’re in a fight to use those concepts. Imagine how different your evening would be if you became suspicious that trouble might be about to start, and you left the room. Now there’s no possibility of a fight. You might say that you got off the line early!
If I extend the metaphor to how I deal with my anger, how could that look? If I think about the times I’ve lost my temper, can I spot some precursor events or conditions that seem to lead to bad outcomes? If so, and if I cultivate better skills around self-awareness, I might be able to spot those conditions and defuse or avoid them. No precursor; no outburst. It’s just a hypothesis, but one I plan to think about a lot.
I have no idea if other bad times are susceptible to similar short-circuiting, but how interesting it would be if they are. Perhaps I could shorten or avoid the times of intense melancholy or feelings of emptiness if they are rooted in environmental conditions that I can learn to identify.
When I first started thinking about not trusting my thoughts and emotions, I wasn’t happy at all. It felt as if I was, in some way, telling myself, or admitting to myself, that my thoughts and emotions are not valid. I feel as if I’ve gotten enough of that sort of invalidation from other people over the years; I don’t want to do it to myself.
After a while though, I started thinking about it in terms of skill building. If you are trying to build a doghouse, or knit a hat, and you’ve never done any carpentry or knitting, it’s unlikely that you’re going to do a great job the first time. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means that you’re not yet skilled in these crafts. Your skill with a hammer or a pair of knitting needles isn’t you; you’re learning. Similarly, my outbursts of anger don’t have to imply that I’m a bad person. Perhaps I just haven’t learned the skill of managing my emotional environment!
I was thinking today about the criteria for a BPD diagnosis. The symptoms include insecurity, emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, and disturbed relationships; fear of abandonment, impulsive behavior, intense anger, etc. etc. and it struck me how human all of those things are. People who are suffering from symptoms of this disorder aren’t weird or alien… we’re just having a bit more of those things than most people do, and certainly more than is comfortable.
This feels like an important thing for me to contemplate. If BPD symptoms are based in who-knows-what… perhaps trauma, perhaps genetics… but are not wildly strange, and may be manageable if I build my skills and awareness, then it means that I can get better results if I study and practice certain skills, and learn awareness. I’m good at learning. I want to get better. I feel as if this is a hopeful and realistic concept.