My circumstances determine my attitude and other stories I tell myself

When I started getting treated for my bipolar disorder, my psychiatrist gave me a chart to keep track of my moods. Each day I write down what medications I’ve taken, rate my levels of depression, mania, irritability and anxiety, and note any factors contributing to my mood. Over the years, I’ve written things such as  “horrible insomnia”, “frustration/anger over disrespectful email” and “situational irritability.”

Lately, the chart tells a story, but it’s not a story about mood swings. It’s a story that I tell myself, one that I’ve written about myself, for myself. In it, I am protagonist, the long-suffering heroine, and others are the antagonists, the things forcing me to act wrongly and become a negative, irritable person.

My temper tantrum? Blame the broken washing machine. My argument with my husband? Blame the insomnia. My irritability and impatience with my children? Blame them for behaving badly.

It’s situational, I tell myself. If my washing machine and husband and children and sleep cycles would behave the way they are supposed to—my way, of course—then I never would behave badly myself. I would be angelic and float about with a beatific expression on my face, strumming a harp and ministering to the needy.

That’s the story I tell myself. I tell it to others, even when I apologize for my crankiness.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you, honey. I shouldn’t do that. I’m just so tired. . . .”

“I’m sorry I was so angry, kids. I’m just frustrated when you disobey. . . .”

“I’m sorry . . . but it’s your fault.”

That’s the story I tell myself. But is it true?

Underneath, I have a lurking suspicion that they’re not to blame for my irritability. Yes, sometimes others are difficult or wrong or downright evil; sometimes machines break down at inconvenient times; sometimes I can’t go to sleep or I’m hungry when there’s no food in the house.

But is that the only reason for my negative reaction? Or is my reaction tied to my character? Is there some character flaw within me that I am unaware of until outside influences trigger my reaction? And am I choosing my reaction?

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, writes

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

In other words, outside influences—whether that is extreme abuse or starvation or fatigue—don’t determine the reaction. It influenced their attitudes, certainly, but didn’t force them. All other freedoms can be taken away, yet one remains: the choice of one’s attitude and reaction in any circumstances. 

If that’s true in Auschwitz, then it might be true in my life, too.

Maybe the story I’ve told myself isn’t true. I’m not really forced to react with a temper tantrum or cranky attitude. I’m not really the angelic heroine, all goodness and light inside; my heart holds a lot of negative things that I would rather ignore.

It’s inconvenient to have my story be shown as a lie.

It’s horrifying to look at my heart and see the warped arteries and feel the arrhythmic heart beat. It’s even more troubling to see that these malfunctions are a result of decisions I have made, the attitude I have chosen, the things I have let in and have held in, even when they damage me and others. 

I don’t like this story. If this was a book, I would ban it from libraries and bookstores and burn every copy the publisher put out. I would cast it off, tell everyone that it’s just the crappy first draft. I would blame my agent for sending that crappy first draft to the publisher, the editor for not revising it thoroughly, and the art department for not designing a beautiful cover to hide the trash inside.

But what if that first draft, that raw, shameful, rough prose, is the true story of the state of my heart?

What if others aren’t to blame for my reactions and attitudes?

What if it’s really me? What if I need to take responsibility for my actions?

 There’s some editing that needs to be done, and it’s not to smooth out the rough words and awkward phrases.

I need to edit the essence of this story I’ve told myself, and it starts with telling the truth.

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10 thoughts on “My circumstances determine my attitude and other stories I tell myself

  1. I don’t have any personal experience with bipolar disorder but of course you’re correct in your comment that you aren’t ” forced to react with a temper tantrum or cranky attitude.” None of us is, but how we react to negative situations usually depends on our mood, regardless of its cause. Moods are influenced by our body and brain’s chemistry, so if bipolar disorder is present, then I think you can excuse some of the manifestations of it… i.e., the effect on your mood. It’s complex, and made more so by your bipolar problem, but it’s good that you’re trying to take control of how you respond to situations. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Carol. I’ve had a hard time separating what part I can control versus what I can’t. My tendancy has been to blame everything (including my malfunctioning brain chemicals) for my irritability, even when I could’ve controlled my attitude/reactions better. Then again, sometimes I blame myself when it really is my chemicals/hormones behaving badly and I need to look at medication adjustments or simply taking a nap! (That was often the case when I was pregnant.) Sometimes I really wish we could definitively pull out one strand of our being and say, “oh, so it’s the chemicals’ fault (or hormones or something spiritually amiss or emotional baggage from childhood).” But that’s not the case. While I am trying to take better control of my responses, I’m also trying to examine what was really going on that prompted the response and ask God to show me if it’s me being a stinky person inside or if it’s a chemical thing.

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  2. It’s difficult, but we must strive to be honest. Yes, the word strive denotes work and sometimes it is work trying to be honest. Somehow, it seems easier to be honest with others than with ourselves. But are we being honest with them if we aren’t with ourselves? That’s the hard part isn’t it!

    I’m really enjoying your writing. Thanks Laura! Blessings… T

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    1. Tamara, why is it so difficult to be honest with ourselves?! I am probably the only person that believes all the lies I tell myself, and other people can see through them more clearly than I can. But somehow I delude myself with the idea that if I can convince myself that the lie is a truth, then other people will believe it, too. Strange how it works!

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      1. I used to be so good at lying, that I, too, was convinced what I was telling others was the truth. What a relief it was when I was able to live in the real world of truth. So much simpler!

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    1. Thanks, Diane. This blog post kicked me in the rear yesterday. . . . I had a sick child and had to cancel all my plans for the day, and I wanted to have a very bad attitude. Then I remembered what I wrote.

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