I don’t know if it is because of who I am, still with a strong sense of my childhood self inside of me, or if it is because of my previous work environment with the Chinese… but there are still phrases that send me into a panic which under other circumstances would be innocuous.
For my parents, the phrase was always “Let’s take a drive.” After that phrase was uttered, it was like a mafia movie until the drive ended. Sometimes, the drive would truly be innocuous. It was to see a new house being constructed, to view Christmas lights, or something of that variety. Other times, it would be exactly as I feared… we would drive for a time, my anxiety growing, then we’d slowly pull back into the family driveway and before I could get out, the doors would lock and my father would start lecturing me or telling me something they’d discovered which I should be ashamed about. Thus, never knowing which way “a drive” would end, the suggestion would always cause me to begin feeling a building anxiety. The phrase would seize my chest and my brain would rapidly attempt to account for any and all negative things that my father could wish to scold me on. As we got into the car, my heart would flutter, anxiety building, and I would gird myself for whatever uncomfortable and shame-filled lecture was in store. On the occasions where the drive ended without a lecture, I would simply exit the car and calmly walk to my room where I would finally allow myself a long exhale and began to breath normally again.
For romantic partners prior to my wife, the phrase was the stereotype “We need to talk.” My wife does not use that phrase, not out of awareness for its cliched problems, but as she is not one to plan out what to say that far in advance. She is far more a feel it, say it… which in many ways I appreciate (I would always rather know what someone is thinking/feeling) but in other ways creates friction and problems. But especially in High School and College, we are all (in some ways) simply experiencing cliches, stereotypes, cinematic sequences, and reality all at the same time trying to discover which combination of all truly expresses ourselves and feels right. Therefore, despite my shallow and inexperienced dating life, I did hear “We need to talk” on multiple occasions. An experience that would severely cloud my head for the rest of the day every time. It would always be the same. Sometime between first and third period, the girl I was seeing would say, “We need to talk” but that talk would not happen until 8th period or until after school. So I would go through the day attempting to calm myself down, trying to focus on my classes, and failing at both attempts spectacularly. No matter what was actually going on, the back of my mind was rolling and repeating “What could this be about? Think about things that are wrong. Think about ways to react. Prepare for every eventuality. What could this be about?” The day would end and I would anxiously track down my paramour. Sometimes it was as simple as “What are we doing this weekend?” or as serious as “We need to break up.” The range was wide… leading to every time someone would say “We need to talk” I would cycle the anxiety all over again.
In my work life, for some reason, the expression has been “Lets grab lunch together.” The fact that that is the expression says a number of different things to me. Because without any negative associations whatsoever, that phrase could simply mean “We are both in the same office, let us both receive nutritional sustenance together.” Or y’know… an act of friendship or bonding. And yet… the phrase acts much as “Go for a drive” or “we need to talk.” I make quick deductions and scenarios. Lunch for two is private enough that two lawyers could speak about things but public enough that an argumentative or negative encounter would not be able to escalate into something huge. In other words, there is every reason to believe “lunch is just lunch” but my mind instantly attempts to consider all the possible negative scenarios of what “getting lunch” could mean.
This happened this morning when, shortly after sitting in my chair, my boss came by and asked if I had lunch plans. I did not and immediately began sweating. We scheduled lunch and by the time he had left my office, I had already developed a fairly long list of things he’d need to lecture me about. I’m too transparent politically. I’m not doing enough work. I’m wasting Tax Payer money. The budget no longer allowed for an Assistant Position. My plea deals were too generous. My lack of filing for days on end established that I wasn’t doing my job. My appearance was unacceptable for a professional office. My desk was too unsightly and needed to be fixed. My lack of personal touches to my office made him think I wasn’t settling in well. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A few hours later, he e-mailed everyone in the office that it had been too long since we had an All Office Meeting and we’d be having one the next morning. Now, logically this let me know that the lunch we were having was FAR LESS LIKELY to be some kind of chewing out and more of just a meeting to discuss what we wanted to discuss at the meeting. A brief “getting our ducks in a row as the leads of the office” before discussing with the support staff. That is CLEARLY what the lunch is about and the rational portion of my brain is keenly aware of that. The emotional part of my brain is not sure of that at all and continues to concoct scenarios, taking the announcement of this new meeting as further confirmation that whatever horrible thing I’ll be getting yelled at for is so foul and unforgivable that the office needs a second meeting to discuss what to do with me. Obviously, this last thought is irrational, unlikely, and easily seen as false. But that is the difference between the logical mind and the emotional mind. Logically, I can sit here and say “A leads to B and B leads to C, and this is constant. Therefore A leads to C is assured.” But the emotional brain is the type to say, “A leads to B and B leads to C; but what happens if R interrupts B, sending the entire thing off course thereby resulting in A leads to 3?!?!”