The Misuse of Affection
I’ve written before about how much I have learned from Cesar Millan – not just about dogs, but about myself as well.
One of Cesar’s common lessons has to do with affection. He cautions owners not to use affection when their dog is in an unstable mental state (usually anxiety, but also fear or aggression). He explains that by applying affection when the dog is unstable only seeks to reinforce that behavior. It’s completely logical, yet not always easy to do. When we see a distressed dog, our first instinct is to comfort it, to try to suppress its discomfort with love. That reaction backfires once the dog realizes that it can garner your loving attention by entering into an unstable place.
I’ve been thinking and writing quite a bit lately about my own unstable mental states (we all have a propensity towards one or more). For me, I struggle with becoming (and staying) anxious. I’ve worked on managing my anxiety most of my life and, other than the period after the divorce, it really has never interfered too much with my life. I’m not content with that; however, I want to try to figure out where it comes from and how it grew so that I can strive to venture into anxiety even less.
I realized that my ex played an unintentional role in nurturing my anxiety. He didn’t like to see me in distress. When I would get anxious, he would respond by becoming overly affectionate. He would soothe me with words and touch. It was great in the moment. But in the long run? Not so much.
It kept me from having to learn as an adult how to get myself out of that unstable state. But even worse, it rewarded anxiety with affection and loving attention.
Great. Just the association I want to have.
I never realized this connection while I was with him. Why would I? I had my needs met and my nerves soothed. It’s become clearer to me as I’ve gained distance and had to learn how to live first on my own and now with Brock. The first few times Brock didn’t immediately step in to pacify my fears, I was hurt. Upset. Even disgruntled. After all, I saw that as his role.
Slowly, I started to learn the difference between him being supportive when I truly needed it and enabling my disquieted mind. I had to discern the difference between affection coming from love and affection coming from a discomfort with my mental state. I had to learn how to soothe myself. I guess I hadn’t quite mastered that one in infancy:)
Again, I take a lesson from Cesar. He dictates approaching a dog’s behaviors with “exercise, discipline and then affection.” Turns out that sequence works pretty well for this human too. When my mind spins into anxiety, I start by going to gym or heading out for a run. Discipline comes in the form of writing, yoga or meditation. Finally, I’m ready for affection, which at that point, serves to reinforce my calmer state of mind.
Cesar says we don’t get the dog we want; we get the dog we need. In my case, I think I got the man I needed too.