The brain’s dashboard

Anger, pain, and fear are like the indicator lights on the dashboard of our brains, warning us that something or someone is a threat. Sara Wald

The check engine light on my dashboard is broken. It comes on randomly, then shuts off again whenever the mood strikes it, rendering it useless.

The first time it happened, I rushed my car to the mechanic, only to be told that it’s a wiring issue that will cost $800 to fix. My car runs great otherwise, is not very old, and is paid in full. It’s just not worth the expense, so I’ve chosen instead to live with the false alarm.

It took some getting used to.  At first I drove around on edge, wondering if this time, perhaps something really was wrong.

I’ve since learned to just ignore it. It’s like my car is being overly dramatic.

I don’t want to risk feeling constantly on edge, always wondering when my car is going to flip out on me. Essentially, I want to avoid getting trapped in an unhealthy relationship with my car.

Anger is not the bad guy

Anger – like its sisters pain and fear – is a good thing. When it’s working correctly, it serves as a crucial indicator that something isn’t right in our external environment.

Anger, pain, and fear are like the indicator lights on the dashboard of our brains, warning us that something or someone is a threat.

But like my car, sometimes we can get our wires crossed. Those of us who grew up in dysfunction, or who have spent time in abusive relationships, undergo a rewiring of our brains that trains us to live in a constant state of fight or flight, and we are always in a state of physical and/or emotional pain.

This emotional upheaval sets our natural warning indicators out of whack, and we are unable to trust our intuition. Everything scares us, everything hurts, and this makes us angry.

Anger addiction

After a while, we don’t even know why we’re mad. Those caught in dysfunction and shame cycles live in a constant state of anger and defensiveness. We are accustomed to being under constant attack, so we assume we are being attacked, even when we are not.

This makes it nearly impossible to form close relationships with emotionally healthy people. Healthy individuals know how to recognize an angry person and instinctively keep their distance. Why? Because their brain’s dashboard is working properly!

The cycle continues

This is why it seems as though emotionally healthy people end up in relationship with other healthy people, and emotionally damaged people end up with other damaged people.

Ever heard someone say, “I am a loser magnet! The only kind of people who want to date me are a mess!” or some variation of this? Here are a few others:

“All my friends take advantage of my generosity!”

“All men are pigs! All they want is sex.”

“All women are interested in me for is my money.”

“My kids don’t know how to choose the right friends. They are good kids, but their taste in friends is terrible!”

There is actually truth to these statements. These individuals are addicted to anger. Their first response to conflict is to respond defensively, without giving others the benefit of the doubt. They assume that everyone is out to get them.

Healthy individuals’ internal dashboard warns them that this is someone to keep at a distance, so they don’t keep them in close relationship.

Just like I’ve learned to ignore the overly dramatic warning light on my car’s dashboard, an emotionally healthy person instinctively knows to keep a kind but firm boundary against close relationship with someone too quick to enrage or get defensive.

Since we all need relationships in order to survive, the only people left are others who also struggle with issues of anger, pain, and fear. And the cycle continues.

How to break the cycle

The only way to break the cycle is to make an intentional decision to let go of anger, take accountability for your actions, set boundaries, and invest the time and energy in rewiring the dashboard of your brain.

It takes hard work and lots of support. You can’t do this alone. Often, you need the help of a therapist or a support group trained in boundary setting and dysfunctional family relationships in order to break free.

It is normal to feel awkward at first. If anger is your default, calm is going to feel scary. It’s normal to slip back into defensiveness sometimes. It’s okay. Everyone falls sometimes.

Once you discover the peace that comes with accountability and boundaries, and the joy of healthy relationships, you won’t want to go back.

The path to rewiring your brain’s dashboard with pain, fear, and anger was difficult.  The only way to fix it is to follow that same path back to where it began, and start again.

You can do it. Let me help. Redefine Love.

Related Links:
Dealing with Anger
Mental Health
The Shame Cycle
Toxic Relationships
Boundary Basics
Accountability
The Family Connection

published June 26, 2019

Copyright © Redefining Love 2019

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