Pipers must be paid

I have issues with wish lists. I have said and written some stupid things about them.

Those things had more to do with my own baggage than anything else. Of course, you might ask, “How can someone have emotional baggage over the notion of wish lists?” The answer is: emotions are, by definition, non-rational. What seems trivial to you may be very painful for someone else.

My issues with wish lists are not that serious. I have this very unrealistic notion that if I care about someone enough to want to buy them a present, that I ought to know them well enough to pick something on my own. Never mind all the times I found myself at a loss for a good gift for my mom. Or something great for my husband. I know that the notion is unrealistic. I know that some of us are very hard to shop for. But whenever I go to browse someone else’s wish list, I feel guilty that I couldn’t come up with something on my own.

Other people have far more serious issues with things that many of us find innocuous. I’ve seen people driven into an uncontrollable rage—face red, unable to sit still, hands shaking with fury—over a particular novelty song, because it triggers memories of bad situations they were in where they felt endangered by another person. Or more accurately, because the song is making a joke out of a not uncommon situation where (sometimes) people suffer real harm.

Telling someone to “get over it” or “get a sense of humor” doesn’t solve anything. When we survive a bad situation, it leaves an impression. Stress causes physical changes in one’s brain which persist long after the stressor is removed. The more severe the situation, the greater the effect. When later situations trigger the memory—whether we are simply reminded of it or believe we may be in an identical situation—the brain reacts. Neurochemicals and hormones are released, and our bodies react.

You might as well tell a person going into anaphylactic shock due to a severe food allergy to “get over it.”

This isn’t to say we can’t undo any of the changes the stress has caused. Good experiences also make changes to the brain, and the right kind of reinforcement can help someone who has a severe reaction to certain triggers moderate the reaction. But it takes time and understanding.

As I said, not all issues are equal. My pointless wish list guilt isn’t debilitating, just annoying. I don’t know what causes it, precisely. I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a child, I had a bad experience picking out a gift for one of the more abusive/vindictive adults in my life back then. I don’t remember, all that remains is the feeling. If I have to resort to consulting someone’s wish list, I feel very guilty, with a vague sense of failure or inadequacy.

The crazy part is, when I am drawing a complete blank on someone, and then I discover that they have a wish list, I feel a great sense of relief. Reading such a list, I always discover things the person is interested in that I didn’t know before. And often it gives me ideas of things to get them in the future. So it’s a win all around!

Abuse, whether physical, emotional, verbal, or otherwise, always has consequences. Someone must pay the piper, as the old saying goes. Unfortunately, in these cases, the person who has to pay the piper isn’t the person who called the tune.

2 thoughts on “Pipers must be paid

  1. I learned a lot about dealing with inappropriate emotional responses in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I was taught to ask myself “Because this happened that means I am…” (In this case it appears that you feel that you have failed or are inadequate as a friend because you had to look at their list to know what they want) Then ask myself if that is a true statement. (clearly not) Then come up with a counter statement. (My inherent worth does not depend on guessing what my loved ones want. or A good friend is willing to ask for information.) Anyway, That is what helps me deal with irrational emotional responses sometimes.

    1. Yes, indeed.

      I’d originally meant this to be about the fact that everyone has these things, even those people who don’t realize it. And I picked the wish list thing because it is trivial, and because the issues are barely able to even slow me down for zooming to people’s lists any more.

      Maybe I’ll circle back to it.

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