I sometimes joke that I’m a feelings machine, but that description isn’t really so far from the truth. My brain churns out emotional reactions a rate that leaves me breathless, too fast for me to understand the why and how. Everything, everything seems to provoke some kind of intense feeling in me, and they almost always seem to be negative. I’m never just a little sad or anxious or concerned – I feel like the world is ending, over and over again, all day every day. It’s like the volume dial on my emotions is constantly cranked to 11. It’s exhausting for me, and I know that it’s hard for the people around me. I’m too intense, all the time, every day. It’s just too much.
The problem is that almost everything feels like an emergency, especially when it comes to interpersonal conflict; I have a seriously hard time distinguishing between an every day, run-of-the-mill argument and a relationship-ending barn-burner. If a friend or family member leaves before the conflict is resolved, I’m certain that they’re never coming back. Nothing ever feels solid enough.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, trying to figure out why I react with panicked sobbing to stupid differences of opinion that most people would just roll their eyes at. Why do these situations send off deafening alarm bells in my brain when they seem to be just blips on everyone else’s personal radar? And why can’t I ever stand my ground and assume that I might be right instead of turning into a babbling mess of frantic apologies and promises to do better next time?
I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it has to do with the relationships that I’ve had with volatile, unpredictable people. And I don’t just mean romantic relationships – I mean any kind of relationship, with a parent or a sibling or a teacher or a friend. For whatever reason (I mean, I can think of actual Reasons, but I’m not going to get into them right now), I’m drawn to these people. For one thing, they’re exciting, aren’t they? You never know what they’ll do or say next, and they tend to stir up my otherwise boring, predictable existence. Staying on their good side seems like some kind of a challenge, and I’ve never backed down from a challenge. And I guess it’s a dynamic that I understand and feel comfortable with, even though you can never really feel as if you understand or feel comfortable with these types of people.
The problem with volatile people is that everything has the potential to be an emergency; something that they think is fine and dandy one day could send them into screaming fits of rage the next. You never, ever know how they’ll react, so you always have to brace yourself. Anything that you do or say could set them off. Conversely, anything that you do or say could also delight them to no end. There’s no way of knowing how things will play out, and so trying to please them is like aiming at a moving target – you’ll probably never be able to hit it, and if by some stroke of luck you do, that strike has nothing to do with your skills or capabilities.
If you live with a volatile person for long enough, it’s hard to maintain a consistent personal narrative. Every event is re-framed by how they saw it, and no matter how hard you try to hold on to your version of events, the force of their overreactions starts to erode your confidence in your own perspective. Trying to fight against them begins to exhaust you – they’re too good at pushing your buttons, know too well exactly what to say to hurt you most deeply, and you can’t keep up, can’t maintain that level of mean-spiritedness. You start to accept what they tell you, because it’s just easier. It’s easier to be wrong all the time. It’s easier to apologize. It’s easier to lie down and let them walk all over you. Of course, you lose yourself in the process, but what does that matter? By that point you believe that that self was worthless anyway.
Once you’ve experienced that type of relationship, it’s hard to know how to interact with other people, non-volatile people. You’re constantly looking for hidden meaning in their words and actions, looking for clues that might tell you how to behave. You don’t trust them when they say that everything’s fine, because you know that nothing is ever fine, not really. Even the smallest thing could escalate into a disaster.
So you overreact. You cry and panic over stupid, petty things, because how can you ever be sure that they’re really so stupid and petty? You grovel and apologize before they can get to the point where they demand and apology, because you know that it’s so much easier that way. You call yourself every bad name in the book before they can even open their mouths. You try so hard to beat them to the punch, even when there’s no punch coming. The new people in your life, these normal, non-volatile people, can’t figure out where you’re coming from. They chalk it up to low self-esteem, and try to build you up or bully you into feeling better about yourself. They all tell you that you need to care less about what other people think, and you want that, you want it so badly, but you have no idea how to stop caring. You’re not certain who you are unless someone else is telling you something about yourself; you feel like a sort of black hole, sucking in everything from the people around you. You’re so hungry for a version of yourself that you can love and accept, but nothing that anyone can tell you is ever enough.
You feel more defined by absence than anything else and incapable of emitting any light.