Playing Pretend With a Tree

Bob Ross painting

It’s a sad fact of life that we fall apart in front of those we feel safest with.

We keep it together in front of the boss, but when we get home from the office, we break into tears and snap at our love(s) about dinner not being ready. Or it’s their day to fall apart, and they start things off with raw emotion, incivility, displaced anger.

What can we do? How can we keep that negativity from harming the people who care about us most?

Leave the negativity where it belongs.

There’s a story I heard once at a counseling retreat called The Trouble Tree:

The carpenter I hired to help me restore an old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.

On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His tanned face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

“Oh, that’s my trouble tree,” he replied.” I know I can’t help having troubles on the job, but one thing’s for sure, troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again.”

He paused. “Funny thing is,” he smiled, “when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there ain’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”

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If playing pretend with a tree sounds goofy, that’s okay. Your Trouble Tree doesn’t need to be a formal ritual, although it helps to be somewhat consistent in the way you unwind. It could be listening to music, going for a jog, taking a hot bath, anything that gets you out of that negative head space.  Acknowledge to yourself in quiet reflection that the day sucked. And then be silly, relax.

It’s hard. I struggle with this myself. If I’m asked “How was your day?” after a particularly bad one, an epic rant often escapes. And as good as it feels in the moment, the research is against venting your anger. Studies have found that doing nothing is actually more effective in helping anger go away than venting (e.g., Bushman, Baumeister & Stack, 1999). The idea that blowing up helps you get over it is wrong. It’s a big myth, one that we embrace happily as a culture, a vestige from Freud. Don’t bottle it up! Let it out. But really? If you wait, it’ll dissipate on its own.

Going by the logic of this myth, one would think that the biggest ranters among us would be supremely emotionally healthy and placid as heck when not actively wronged. But I don’t find this to be the case either. Conversely, the rantiest people I’ve known are the ones who seem to be always pissed at someone or another. What’s different from them is that they seem confident that they are right. If anything, it seems like venting and ranting convince them of the “rightness” of their anger.  So anecdotally it’s not looking good for ranting either.

David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart, has written an excellent take:

If you think catharsis is good, you are more likely to seek it out when you get pissed. When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting.

It’s drug-like, because there are brain chemicals and other behavioral reinforcements at work. If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it.

The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of the stove. Let it go from a boil to a simmer to a lukewarm state where you no longer want to sink your teeth into the side of buffalo.

So my best answer from here on out when I’m asked how my day was is,”Over. And better now that I’m with you.”

*

Being able to quickly shift gears is especially important for polyamorous people. Eve Rickert, coauthor of More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, wrote recently of this carryover in her post “The polyamory emotional labour daisy chain”:

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain occurs any time there’s a problem in one relationship that spills over into the other relationships in a network. The emotional labour pours inward, from person to person, toward the source of the problem—as each person in turn leans outward, toward a partner who has emotional labour to give. (This happens in friend groups, too. But often the expectations are higher in romantic relationships—and boundaries can be harder to set.)

…you know what? Taking care of each other, supporting each other and helping each other out is cool. But setting up structures whereby certain people are consistently excused from performing emotional labour and certain people are expected to always provide it is not cool. It’s not cool in society, and it’s not cool in a polyamorous network.

I have seen this happen so many times, to myself, to others. And while setting boundaries with people who are leaning on us more than we can bear is a great thing and I encourage it, I also think that we have a responsibility when we are the ones having problems to make sure we manage them as well as we can on our own and with those they directly involve before bringing them a context where they don’t belong.

Being able to refocus and be present for the person you’re currently with regardless of anything else that may have happened to you is crucial when you have multiple ongoing relationships.

Maybe Poly.Land needs to plant some more Trouble Trees.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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