The topic of mid life crisis has come up quite a bit in my social circles over the last six or so months. I haven’t initiated discussions on the topic because I wouldn’t call what I’m currently experiencing in life as a crisis, but the topic does make me reflect on what my wife Rachel says is a lot of change that I’ve been putting myself through lately.
She’s right about the amount of change. To be honest, these days it feels like I’m turning myself inside out.
When I decided to stop drinking back in November, the driving reason was to improve my health, but right behind it was a growing sense that drinking was playing an insidious, negative role in how I showed up in relationships.
My initial reason for going to therapy was to get relief and “fix” the challenges I was experiencing in my life. Instead what happened is I have learned to live a more lucid life, to reflect more deeply, and to sit with the discomfort that my reflection sometimes creates.
In therapy I’ve learned about concepts in psychology that have expanded my ability to process my emotions and responses to situations with more compassion for myself and others then I’ve had in a long time. Maybe since early childhood, before some of these issues started developing in the first place. My last therapy session has had me buzzing for days now and I can’t shake it, so even though I’m struggling to articulate what I’ve learned from it, I can’t write about anything else this week. I’ll just do my best to make it valuable for you and hope you’ll understand.
For a few weeks now, I’ve had this growing curiosity about why I do what I do. And I don’t mean entrepreneurship or creating. I’ve walked that storyline down and at least have a narrative about it that I accept and makes sense.
I’m talking about why I react to certain people in certain ways. Why even though I know what happens in my life is my responsibility, I still from time to time blame others for what’s happening to me. Why I avoid certain situations or people even when they haven’t done anything to me. What’s behind this funny business?
It’s reasonably well known that many of us have issues from our childhoods that affect how we operate as adults. No huge revelations there. But a new concept from that line of thinking emerged in my last therapy session that has cracked open a connection between my head and my heart so I wanted to talk about it.
The concept is called “Insecure Attachment”. Most of what I’m finding about it online feels like junk food, so for now I’ll just point to this Wikipedia article on Attachment in Children, and report back as I find books that cover this topic effectively.
Because I am not qualified to summarize what Insecure Attachment actually is, I’ll just talk about what my exploration of this concept is helping me realize about myself and go from there.
I have fantastic parents and they did an incredible job raising me, but no parents can completely protect their kids from the world. For boys in particular, there are a lot of cultural nudges to “grow up” and “not be a wimp” that can put off dealing with emotional issues for a long time. Later on in life, because issues that are unaddressed don’t go away, people who were inclined or required to subscribe to these nudges end up contorting themselves to cope with the impact that these issues create. Sometimes the issues are unaddressed for so long that one can even forget they are there. But the disfunction will persist.
In my latest therapy session, I was working to unpack how I get triggered in certain situations. Now that I’m meditating and not drinking, even if I can’t always stop a triggered response, I can much more effectively observe it and assess my heart rate, my emotions and my mood while it’s happening.
Before I continue, I want to explicitly call this out. This is real power. I know I will never control the world. And I’ve known intellectually (because it’s cliche at this point) that I can only really control my response to the world. But so many people have no actual idea how to do that. I used to talk about it, but if you knew the right buttons to push, you could get a response out of me on demand because I had no internal ability to detach from the situation. There may be other ways to develop this, but I can confirm that for me, the combination of avoiding intoxication and meditation have absolutely developed this ability.
Ok, back to the story.
So my therapist walked me down the path of the encounter I brought up, and as she does, masterfully reflected my behavior to me as a triggered response to a deeper fear of something that the encounter represented. The encounter’s trigger was my perceived lack of predictability in the situation. She suggested that my reaction to a lack of predictability could be coming from something I experienced as a child.
While she started fishing around my parents and teachers, and I said “no, no”… my head immediately visualized a memory and my heart started to beat fast.
When I was 11 years old, I used to get off of the school bus with one of my best friends, Shannon, and stay at her house in Canarsie, NY. Shannon’s family was my extended family. Her parents were like my second parents. Shannon’s dad Howard (RIP) was an Irish American attorney, and her mom Elaine was an Italian American waitress. I would stay at their house after school, do homework, eat dinner, and play with Shannon and her older sister Elaine and their friends from the neighborhood until my mom picked me up around 8pm each night.
One day, we were outside playing, and I heard a voice say “Get the fuck off my block nigger!” It was surreal. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I was so disoriented that I didn’t know if they were talking to me or not. But the voice got louder, the direction it came from got clearer, and my fight or flight systems kicked in confirming that the yelling was in fact aimed at me. I looked around and saw about two houses from where I stood, at the top of the front steps was a Italian man, probably in his thirties, yelling at me and looking like he was going to come after me and hurt me.
Fight or flight systems fully engaged. Flight activated.
I ran as fast as I could to Shannon’s house, up the front stairs, up the inside stairs and huddled in the corner of their living room. I was scared to death.
Now to put a quick bow on this story, Howard told me that he would take care of it and he did. Howard was a well respected attorney with some powerful clients in the neighborhood, and after a couple of weeks they convinced me I would be safe outside and I saw the guy again and he was very nice to me. Someone had a serious talk with him.
So I got the lesson that family was important and strength mattered. I started wrestling in school after this. I developed the tools to enable me to fight in the future, and that’s mostly what I default to today when I feel threatened.
But what I learned in this therapy session… is that I never got over the insecurity that moment created. Never.
Because race is tied to that moment, deep down I am insecure about how people will engage with me that I don’t know on the street because of my race. And I’ve trained in wrestling, boxing, martial arts and lifted weights, in part, to deal with that insecurity. I’ve preferred anger to fear, probably due to the whole “boys need to be tough” thing.
When people or situations in my life are unpredictable, it’s a trigger.
One of the reasons I get along SO well with my business partner Vic is because he is probably the most predictable person I know. I don’t think he has surprised me in a meaningful, negative way in ten years.
What’s got my head all twisted, is that I never connected that triggered anger I feel with a deeper fear. I never came to terms with the fact that fight or flight are just two sides of the same coin. And my coin was forged in fear as a child, and it still has a large impact on my life thirty years later.
What’s really crazy is that the guy who gave me this gift that I’m unpacking at 43 years old, 32 years ago, was clearly acting out some fear of his own. What 30 year old yells at an 11 year old? There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in his upbringing, someone told him in an aggressive (probably threatening) way that he better not ever engage with black people. When he yelled at me, he was doing so out of fear of disappointing (or getting hurt by) someone else.
This fear stuff is viral.
So here I am, working to forgive that guy for what he did to me on that day 30 years ago. Trying to tell that 11 year old kid that it’s ok, that he had every right to be afraid, but that he doesn’t have to be afraid anymore. Trying to tell myself today that I can change, that I don’t have to be moved to anger by unpredictability, because I don’t have to be afraid that unpredictability is going to hurt me.
And trying to say sorry where I should and at the same time not judge myself too harshly.
We have to find the courage and compassion to find our “demons” before we can deal with them. If we deal with them compassionately, we will find that those demons are usually just mistreated angels, crying out.
Breathe. And have a most grateful day.