Happiness and Guilt-Anger Pinball

Have you ever gotten stuck in the Guilt-Anger Pinball Machine? It’s way less fun than Medieval Madness. It’s the awful place where you keep bouncing back and forth between guilt and anger. You hit the flipper and the bumper and even slam tilt to keep yourself in play between these exhausting negative emotions. Here’s a scenario: You’re visiting your mother, with whom you have a complicated relationship. “There she goes again! She’s always criticizing my life. She’s so unfair – why do I even come?” She hands you an early, very large birthday check because she knows you need the money. “Oh geez. What is wrong with me? She’s always trying to help me like this. I’m such a jerk.” She mentions that you might want to save it for something important rather than spend it on clothes. “What the heck!? She thinks I’m so irresponsible that I’d blow it on stuff I want rather than need? I’m an adult! I can make my own decisions!” At the end of the evening she hugs you tightly, despite your curt responses and rolling eyes you know she must have seen. You tear up.

There might be other Emotional Pinball Machines but this is the one I notice most frequently in my work. One way out is to see the whole picture all the time. When she’s criticizing you (or that’s how you’re interpreting her, anyway) you remember those checks and those hugs. When she’s giving you a fat check you keep in mind that she’s not perfect (after all, she can be critical!). While it might sound horrible to intentionally try to think something rather unkind like that when someone is being generous with you, keeping the whole picture in mind prevents you from thinking of your mom as “all good” and therefore demoting yourself to “all bad” in that moment. Give it a shot, Pinball Wizard.