Emotional Reserves: What Lurks Below the Tip-of-the-Icerberg Coldness
You’re deadlocked. He thinks it’s your problem; you think it’s his. You’ve been going over what happened, how it started and who started it. But neither of you will give an inch. So forget the past. Move on to right now. You’re upset. But then he says he is too. You feel really put out, but then he claims he does too. Well OK, forget right now. The point is to figure out what to do about it. You tell him that with a little gesture he could solve it. He tells you it would be far easier for you to solve it. You say he’s stubborn. He says you are. Past, present, future-you’ve covered it all and you’re still nowhere. Is there anything left to talk about? Anything you haven’t taken into consideration? There is, and it could be decisive. Call it your reserves. Imagine it as some indicator level on self-esteem-your dignity meter, your egometer, your self-worth gauge. Everyone’s got one. The needle fluctuates through the day. Get an enthusiastic e-mail from someone you respect and it goes up. Waste fifteen minutes looking for your lost keys and it goes down. Take a tease to heart and it goes down. Make ‘em laugh and it goes up. Little things; big things-over the day and over the years the readings change.
You may deny you’ve got one. You may ignore it, or it may be operating completely in your unconscious, but something in you monitors it. And if the reserves get low you feel a visceral warning, a sense that your reserves can’t really take another hit. In a fight the unspoken issue may simply be that one or both of you can’t or won’t take any more disappointment with yourself. No way. You can’t afford it. In debates we act as though all we’re ever doing is looking for what’s right, what’s accurate, what’s honest. But we can’t be. Below the surface in all exchanges lurk potential threats to our dignity, some of which come at very bad times. She’s irritated at some software program your company makes. She has finally gotten through to you in tech support and doesn’t mind letting you know that she’s frustrated. This software is making her feel like a chump, and that’s the last thing she needs right now. In a way, though, she’s lucky, because she can justify her frustration without ever admitting that it’s not just the software, it’s that her reserves are low anyway. She doesn’t think about her reserves or yours but just blasts you. But you, this is your first day back at work after a week of coping with the biggest trauma in your life. You’re fragile as can be. Sure, she’s annoyed about the software, but if she knew the state of your reserves she would be much kinder. Self-esteem reserves aren’t the only ones. People have optimism reserves too. If you’ve been through a lot, you can’t really afford more dashed expectations, more terrible news, more stories with downer endings. Friends and I are picking a movie to see together. There’s one I’ve been wanting see, but it’s a little gory. One friend is squeamish and disinclined to subject herself to it. I tease her: Why is she such a wimp? Why isn’t she braver, like me? If I knew what she’s been through, I wouldn’t ask-and I surely wouldn’t tease. Ignoring her history and the dwindled reserves of optimism she’s left with, I look braver. I’ve had it so easy I don’t even know that trauma can thoroughly satiate the appetite for downers. She suggests that we go see some Bollywood import. I scoff at Bollywood movies with their super-saccharine endings. How can people go for such hokey crap? I’m a sophisticate. I want to see movies that deliver the harsh truths. Yeah, well, if I dealt with harsh truths all day like much of Bollywood’s third-world audience, maybe I wouldn’t have as much appetite for harsh truths. I’d want an escape. As it is, ignoring our respective reserves, I escape into a sense that I’m the one brave enough to stand harsh truths. Religion too. I’m so over such pie-in-the-sky malarkey. God the merciful, happy endings-I’m way too realistic and tough to believe in that stuff, right? Those who buy into religion must be real wimps, so in need of comfort that they’ll allow themselves to be suckered into believing stories that make no sense. Again, it’s only true if I compare myself to believers out of context. If my life were anything like the life many believers suffer through, I’d crave hope the way they do. Ignoring reserves, I’m tougher. Factoring in reserves, I’m weaker. Reserves are overlooked and yet often decisive in the decisions we make and the fights we fight. Why don’t we factor them in more? The short answer is that they’re very hard to factor in accurately. The long answer is another article.