Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Just how do I want to feel right now?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, emotions

It took Lynn Toler about six years to write My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius. I'm surprised she finished it at all. She has had remarkable success, becoming a lawyer, a judge, and now star of TV's "Divorce Court". Yet as she details in the book, she was raised, to use an expression heard on the program, "in a tornado". It is a conundrum, to what extent her chaotic surroundings helped, and to what extent they may have helped.

Her certain anchor through it all was her mother, who usually could navigate the rough waters of Lynn's father's moods, but got herself and the kids out of the way whenever needed. He was a genuine maniac, someone who could be a brilliant lawyer in his day job, but who came totally unglued—either drunk or unhinged—after hours. Whereas my experience of bipolar disorder is primarily moderate depression with occasional mania, he was nearly always manic with very rare lows. Yet he was not bad by nature. Lynn's mother told her, "It's not always about the right decision, Lynn. Sometimes it's just a matter of picking which set of problems you want to solve...You can work with a good man who has bad habits because he wants to do the right thing. But a man with no character doesn't give a damn and you can't do anything with that." (p 43)

There is only so much a mother can do, so Lynn had to develop excellent emotional management skills for herself as a matter of survival. She has, she confesses, a very timid, anxious nature, so the strength she developed is doubly remarkable. I find it most remarkable that she could distill from her mother's raising a total of 43 "rules". Each chapter has a few that are pertinent to its own stories, and the rules are summarized in an appendix.

Knowing that most people can't take away more than three points, however, I think these three items can go a long way toward helping any of us:

  • Her first rule is the Smith & Wesson Test: If someone held a gun to your head, could you stop? If so, the emotion you are feeling is a choice and you can learn to control it. This underlies everything else in the book.
  • Under 28: Increase your nonsense threshold, "...small things only bother small people." (p 122) My son and his friends sometimes say, "Chill out" or "Get used to it." Many of the things that get under our skin aren't really worth the bother.
  • In a later chapter, prior to trotting out a couple of rules, she asks us to consider, "If I had to explain my attitude to a five-year-old, how silly would I feel?"
But a practical point I realized as I read about the many faces of anger shown here (for this is at its root a book of anger management): When I begin to feel angry, it is best to say aloud, "I am afraid" and then state my fear. Anger always begins with fear. I'm just beginning to practice this, so stay tuned, and I'll report on its effectiveness. And you, while you are at it, get a copy of My Mother's Rules and copy the appendix to re-read as needed. Maybe we can all chill out just a bit more.

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