Rubble in the Pipes

Why do we feel bad on good days? Listen to your intuition. Valid causes of emotion are not always simple and clear.

Even when emotional pain is recognized as a legitimate signal that something personally significant is happening in the outside world, intense or lasting pain is often considered a faulty signal, like a broken smoke alarm going off in the absence of smoke.

We have a tendency to categorize emotions as either justified or faulty–a sign that some life event is affecting us, or a sign that we’re in error. The latter, taken to its extreme, may prompt the perception that our thoughts and feelings are somehow defective. All of this hinges upon the ability to notice how the world evokes our emotions.

A common illustration to explain faulty emotions is the rope that evokes fear because it looks like a snake. A person experiences instinctive fear even though there is no snake. This illustration suggests that people with irrational fears (or any other irrational emotion) are responding to present-day life in error. If the danger is not present or imminent, there should be no fear.

Even in this limited illustration, however, the initial fear makes logical sense. The “snake alarm system” is functioning as intended. Once the person has stepped back, away from potential danger, and the rope is correctly identified as a rope (which takes longer than it would for a snake to strike), fear subsides, and the body begins to recover.

This illustration has been used to emphasize that thinking (specifically, our interpretations of events) is the key cause of emotion, not events themselves (a major theme in both ancient Stoicism and modern cognitive psychotherapies). The idea is that we can change how we feel by changing our thoughts, regardless of what’s going on around us. In cognitive psychotherapy (e.g., rational emotive behavioral therapy), thoughts and perceptions cause emotion, not events themselves.

During graduate school, I used this rope-snake illustration in presentations on how our interpretations of events generate certain types of emotional responses. At the time, I wanted to find deeper ways to create emotional well-being regardless of one’s circumstances, to interfere with the causal chain from event to emotion. I turned to this illustration for the insight it seemed to impart. Since then, however, my perspective has shifted. The illustration falls short in real life.

Blaming the Detector

Here is an alternative illustration. Imagine that you have a small device implanted in your brain that will alert you when a hurricane is about to hit your house and activate your nervous system appropriately. When the alert is activated, you know that a hurricane is imminent, and you feel mild panic which mobilizes you to take action. You board up your house and evacuate or take cover. So far so good.

Does it make sense to say that the cause of your panic is the device, not the imminent hurricane? It is the cause, but not the only cause. Would we say it’s solely to blame for our panic? Of course not.

The device is indeed the proximal cause of your panic, but it’s only a messenger, an intermediary, not the original cause. Like your thoughts or interpretations of life events, the device is just trying to tell you what’s going on and why it matters. The original cause is a change in the environment (e.g., the formation of a hurricane and its movement in your direction) which affects the detection mechanisms in your device.

Now suppose that on occasion, the impending hurricane changes direction and nothing happens. Does it make sense to consider the device faulty? Assuming it provides a prediction with the most reliable data, and the probability is high that the prediction will come to pass (high enough given the potential damage), the device is just fulfilling its role to sound a warning when it would be wise to take action.

At what point would we conclude that the device is faulty? I think we can propose a variety of criteria. For example, if there was no link between the activity of the device and the presence of a hurricane (no correlation), you might say the device was faulty. Is this how we actually decide whether our emotions are faulty? In practice, I think we are more likely to deem an emotion unjustified or irrational when there is nothing immediately happening that clearly explains it. This would be like blaming the device because you can’t see the hurricane coming, and the ensuing wind is weak.

I’ve lived in Florida for ten years, and a major hurricane has passed near or over my home nearly every year. Yet, I’ve never seen one, and no place I’ve lived has suffered any damage. This is not because the dangers never came. Rather, the news alerted me every time. I made preparations (for example, attaching storm shutters to windows) and got out of town.

If you didn’t like the mild panic caused by the device, is the best solution to turn off the device or block its ability to elicit any emotion? Some Floridians are a bit numb to the news. Every year, there are stories of people who did nothing and lost their homes or their lives. Of course, many do nothing and suffer no harm, but this does not mean the weather reports are the problem. In the same way, our thoughts and emotions may not always give us the most accurate interpretations or predictions, but this does not mean that they’re to blame for all our suffering.

Even the hurricane illustration has a major shortcoming as an analogy though. Most of our emotions are about situations that unfold over days, months, or years. We’re used to thinking of valid emotions as momentary responses to single events. If you’re still feeling the same emotion days later (or weeks or months), it’s easy to think that the problem must lie within. Most of the events to which we respond are not individual, isolated events that begin and end in one day. Most of them are ongoing. Naturally then, valid emotions are also ongoing.

Even a sudden event is often just the marker of a transition from one way of life to another, and the new way of life is a long-lasting condition. The sudden end of a relationship, for example, may be a single event, but it is also the transition into a new life that is forever altered by that loss. A loss is not just the moment of loss, in other words. It’s the months, years, or lifetimes profoundly changed. We can adjust, but part of the lasting, ongoing event of loss includes the demands of adjustment.

So let me upgrade our illustration one more time.

A More Sophisticated Detector

Imagine that your device, rather than detecting imminent hurricanes, detects threats to the ongoing condition of your house. The device can alert you to sudden dangers, like flames engulfing your kitchen, but it can also alert you to dangers that take longer to cause harm, like termites, structural weaknesses, or mold growing in the walls. Many of these slower dangers are invisible in the moment. They’re not obvious. You have to trust the device, but when it triggers a sense of foreboding or worry or a sense that things aren’t right, sometimes you need to spend time and effort figuring out exactly what’s wrong.

Something sudden may happen which has an immediate consequence, such as a flooding bathroom, and it’s obvious then that the device is accurate. What happens, however, when the device continues on alert long after the overflow is gone?

In a literal sense, this happened after my spouse and I moved into a rental house with a history of plumbing problems. The shower and toilets and sinks overflowed again and again. We cleaned up every time, and afterwards, we felt safe and content, but the flooding would happen again. At one point, I put the remains of a salmon dinner into the kitchen sink and ran the garbage disposal, and the water backed up into our washing machine. My work clothes smelled like fish for weeks. This was not a small problem.

Eventually, we called a plumber with an exceptionally long tool for cleaning pipes. They call it a snake, appropriately enough. He literally stood on our roof with it. The snake made its way deep under the house. He pulled loads of rock and rubble out of the pipes running under the house. The rubble had been shoved down the drain when the bathroom was remodeled years before we moved in.

Now this offered a useful analogy. My husband loathed talking about conflicts in our relationship, especially when we were getting along. Why ruin a good day with a heavy, upsetting discussion about past conflicts, he argued. After our plumbing saga, I countered this by saying, “Yes, everything looks great today—but we have rubble in the pipes. If we don’t do something about it on a good day, our house (a.k.a., relationship) is going to flood again. And all our crap will come back up!”

“Rubble in the pipes” became my catch phrase for referring to things that aren’t presently hitting the fan but are still problems.

Going back to the illustration, your device might emit a low-level hum of stress and worry or sadness and despair, even on a “good day,” but that doesn’t mean it’s faulty. In fact, these are the times we most need something to tell us that something is wrong. There’s an argument to be made that it’s better to cope with these issues on a good day than wait until they blow up.

Imagine that I had a home-health detector in my brain, and even after the most recent house flood was mitigated, it put me in a continual state of apprehension and filled my mind with memories of the flooded bathroom. If I listened to it and did not dismiss it, I would be motivated to wonder why the flooding bathroom still bothered me. I might do some further “digging,” piece together clues, and explore the deeper systems underlying what happened in the bathroom. I might discover the rubble in the pipes long before the next flood. If I couldn’t remove the rubble, maybe I could choose to move. And if that was impossible, at the very least, I could make peace with the fact that the flooding would be a regular occurrence.

If I dismissed the detector as faulty (in other words, dismissed my emotions as irrational), none of these options would be possible.

The analogy of the home-health detector—a device that alerts you not just to sudden problems but to ongoing ones—may ring true for other chronic, seemingly unexplained emotions. We are too quick, I think, to consider the lasting effects of trauma irrational—irrational in the sense that because the traumatic event is over, ongoing fear or grief must be like having a broken detector. It’s easy to think of trauma as one isolated event, like a mugging or sudden death of a friend, which shouldn’t produce long-lasting fear or grief, but even isolated events can alter one’s life circumstances far into the future. What trauma does not result in a long-term change in circumstances? The death of a spouse is felt for years or decades to come. Some lasting effects are less visible. For example, one may henceforth know the darkness men are capable of. For many, a single, traumatic event occurs in the context of other losses and ongoing conditions.

Feeling emotional pain on a “good day” does not mean that your emotions are faulty. It means that you are capable of detecting a wide range of influences on your well-being, including influences that are not currently visible and do not happen suddenly. The purpose of such pain is not to cripple you but to shift attention to those influences and prompt you and others in your life to do something to address them.

Even if you are helpless to change your circumstances, dismissing your pain as the result of faulty thinking can be detrimental. Consider, for example, the lasting effects of trauma in women who’ve been abused. The pain of traumatized women around the world is not just a nuisance to those feeling it. It’s a call to men for greater honor and morality. If we diagnose that pain as a disease or an error in thinking, like a defective detector, what message does this send?

Whether you are feeling distress, or someone you love is in distress, if the cause is not clear, do not be quick to discount it. It could be “rubble in the pipes,” and you’re being called upon to act now, when the floors are dry, and the sun is shining.

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