What I Learned From Being Sucker-Punched By A Brain Weasel

(Approximately a 11 min read.)

"You’ve been dating me long enough," he told her during an argument. "You shouldn’t still be insecure about me."

I heard about the argument secondhand, but that was almost enough to make me almost spit my drink onto my monitor.

"That’s not how that works," I typed back to her. "That’s not how that works at all."

I should have realized that was the universe doing its version of Chekov’s gun.

Because within twenty-four hours, I was going to be attacked by a vicious brain weasel.

And I want to tell you about it. [1]

While the story includes my polyamorous relationship style, I think the principles used in the story still apply whether you’re monogamous, polyamorous, or however you do your relationship(s). Heck, it applies to any kind of relationship where jealousy or envy can appear. Personal, romantic, even professional business relationships can spawn brain weasels.

Brain weasels can even spawn without the other person doing anything. I’ve had brain weasels because I thought – with no evidence, mind you – that a partner would reject me if they knew the state of my finances.

I wish I’d known all this back then.

And so I share this story with you, hoping that it will help you with your brain weasels… and help me remember this when dealing with my own.

Opening Cut Scene

I’ve been polyamorous to some degree for almost a decade. I wrote "Compersion: The Skill You Absolutely Need In Your Relationship(s)" almost exactly seven years ago, and still stand behind that post, no matter what kind of relationship you have. I’ve been writing about brain weasels for almost as long.

If there is anybody who should NOT be blindsided by uncomfortable emotions when a partner goes out on a date, you’d think it would be me.

I certainly thought so.

That was, until I found myself unable to concentrate while my long-distance girlfriend was on a date with someone else.

The Spawn Point

To be clear: Having partners go on dates with other people is something that I am used to. Hell, I specifically encouraged her to go on this date. I was thrilled at how excited she was beforehand.

But the brain weasel that crawled out of my brainstem was a big one. It had "she’ll like them more" tattooed across the knuckles of one paw, and "she won’t have time for you" across the knuckles of another.

I don’t even know if weasels actually have knuckles, but you get the idea.

I’m still not sure why, exactly, that brain weasel spawned then. She did nothing wrong; she actually went out of her way to make sure I was okay beforehand, and did everything I’d asked her to do. All the things I thought would be enough to deal with any brain weasel like that. It’d always worked before.

But with all my experience, with my unusually compersion-focused personality, I still found it there, chittering away in my brain.

The Mythos Of The Weasel

There’s a bunch of possible reasons why it showed up. Pretty much everybody I know was busy that night one way or another, so I couldn’t hang out with (or even really talk to) folks to get support. The barometric pressure was changing, which I’ve noticed also messes with my mood. With her being long-distance, it’s harder to reconnect, so there’s more space for a weasel to lurk. And since she’s further away, I don’t get to see her as often, and I’m definitely envious of that.

And on top of that, there’s the literal decades of programming that have worn a groove in my brain.

Our society has some really messed up ideas of what brain weasels – and both jealousy and envy (they’re different) – signify.

We are told that having those feelings means that relationship is important. We’re told those feelings mean we must immediately act, and dramatically so.

I ended up texting a friend:

I have decades of being strongly imprinted on the mythos of John Hughes movies and romcoms that says this feeling means I need to drive across several states RIGHT NOW or carry her out of her workplace or hold a boombox or a bunch of posterboard-written messages outside her home RIGHT NOW or else I’ll lose her forever, because that’s how that myth goes.

I caught this brain weasel whispering all of those toxic rom-com fueled misconceptions in my ear, and was caught completely unprepared.

Brain Weasel Wrangling

All my experience did help.

First, I know a lot of the practical advice for dealing with this sort of envy and jealousy.

Try to focus on something else. Treat yourself a little bit. Indulge in something nice that you don’t normally do. (I got pancakes with lots of syrup.) Do self-care that you know will make you feel better. (I played some video games that usually help me refocus when my mood is crap.) And if you have friends or a support network, reach out to them (which I did), and don’t bother the partner until after the date.

Second, I know that "I feel anxious about this relationship, therefore it’s more important" is an absolutely toxic way to think about relationships. I already knew she’s important to me, and knew that she’d gone out of her way to make sure I was okay before the date, which actually demonstrated how important I am to her as well.

The friend I texted knows that I deal better with emotions when I view them from an academic viewpoint, so they got me to re-explain all this in text, firmly kicking me into "academic" mode, which also helped a lot.

Once I started looking at it academically, it was obvious that my feelings were not about her at all – they were my insecurities.

Once I was able to recognize that, I could identify the feeling, and just observe and feel it without getting lost in the feeling.

That sounds like some kind of esoteric meditation practice that requires sitting somewhere saying a mantra and lighting incense.

But you’ve almost certainly felt something like it while watching a crappy movie.

Imagine you’re watching a mediocre movie that you don’t really care about, with unsympathetic cardboard cut-outs of characters, and a plot that’s a mad libs of TVTropes. (I’m looking at you, Jurassic World: Dominion.)

Suddenly, the music grows in a giant deafening orchestral swell, and for half a second, even though you do not care about the movie at all, you catch yourself with goosebumps, or feel a tightness in your throat, or a shiver of dread, or your eyes water up.

Your body reacts to the music.

For half a second, your nervous system goes "OH THIS IS THE [insert emotion here] PART" and the music evokes that emotion. At least until you remember — a second later — that you’re watching a movie whose plot is about as simple as a porno, except instead of the "plot" being an excuse for naked bodies, the "plot" is an excuse for CGI dinosaurs beating the crap out of each other.

But you’re still there with that feeling the music evoked…and knowing there is absolutely no reason other than the music for you to have that feeling.

But it’s still there, and almost more annoying because you know that you have no reason to feel it.

That is what it’s like.

So I sat with that for a while, until she got home from the date and gave me a call.

The Ensquishening

It is … unpleasant … sitting with that feeling. Like when the other person in a conversation doesn’t respond at all to something you said. Or when the little wiggly "typing" dots appear, then disappear, then appear, then go away again. That’s the kind of space that brain weasels really thrive in.

So I was very glad she was able to give me a call afterward.

She picked up on how I was feeling pretty quickly. I’m not great at hiding my feelings, and I was only trying to hide them long enough that she had a chance to share her excitement about her evening before I shared what had been going on in my head.

"So I’ve been having an irrational fear," I told her. "And I know that it’s irrational, because it hit me out of nowhere, and I want to stress that you have done nothing wrong. I just suddenly started having this fear that it would just be easier for you to spend time with someone closer than me, and that I’d end up getting pushed to the side just because it’s harder for us to see each other in person."

I was not quite that coherent in real life. It came out in a jumbled rush of clauses tripping over themselves as they spilled out. But somehow, I got the point across.

I heard her gasp of surprise and horror when she realized that I’d been hurting, followed by her immediately saying that she heard my concern, and it was something she absolutely was also concerned about. That, no matter how nice of a time she had that evening – or in evenings to come – that I was important, and that she wanted to make sure that my emotional needs were addressed the best we could manage long distance.

I did my part by pulling that brain weasel out into the open, and she did her part, confirming that my fears were unfounded and, more importantly, that we shared the same goals and concerns.

And squish went the brain weasel.

Mid-Credits Stinger Scene

There’s three reasons why I wanted to tell this story to all of you.

The first is to show that experience – let alone "length of relationship" – has nothing to do with whether or not you get brain weasels. That brain weasels tend to show up where and when you are not expecting them. And in addition, that experience is not the only predictor of how well someone will be able to handle a brain weasel, whether their own or a partner’s. She did amazing responding to my brain weasel, and has been doing all this a lot shorter time than I have.

The second is to try to give you an idea of what brain weasels feel like, and emotionally how to handle them. The movie soundtrack analogy is not perfect, but it is pretty darn close. Even when you realize that something is a brain weasel, you will still have a reaction, whether you want to or not.

It’s worth re-emphasizing: YOU WILL STILL EXPERIENCE THE BRAIN WEASEL, EVEN IF YOU KNOW IT IS JUST A BRAIN WEASEL. Simply labeling a brain weasel inside your own head is not enough.

This is why the third reason is so important.

The third is to show exactly what the process of brain weasel squishing should look like. It isn’t always smooth. There will be emotional discomfort (or worse). But the steps and process look the same, no matter what your relationship(s) look like, or what the brain weasel claims that it’s about.

And the key to that process is that the brain weasel is brought out into the open, as soon as possible.

It does not matter how "experienced" or "aware" you are, or how high your "emotional IQ" is. Trying to hunt your own brain weasels by yourself is a fool’s errand.

The times I’ve seen someone try – or that I’ve been the person trying to do it myself – the brain weasel just gets larger and larger. Eventually, the small and relatively manageable weasel becomes a looming, inescapable agent of doom. It can become large enough that it makes people think there’s no point in trying to resolve the weasel, or that they know exactly how someone will react when their fears finally slip out.

When brain weasels are allowed to thrive in silence, they end up making you spiral, and become their own self-fulfilling prophecy.

But when you share your fears and worries with partner(s) that love you and care about you, the brain weasels go squish, just like a monster in a bad, forgettable movie.

[1] As always, please note my artistic license policy; I have not only obfuscated identities, but I have obtained consent to share the obfuscated details of the story.

Featured Image by Trond Giæver Myhre from Pixabay

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