Coming Undone

August 4, 2020


The meeting progresses like a surreal version of the telephone game. Following Jon’s lead, each person picks up the baton twirling it their own particular way, spinning stories about frustration, despair and clownish behavior. Two women were brought to tears yesterday, one by a stressful work situation the other because of melancholy. In a fit of rage, another person wrote a flaming email that he instantly regretted. Someone else was not invited to a company function. Hurt by the slight, she questioned her self-worth, wondering why certain others made the cut and not her. Painful anecdotes, none remotely as dire as Jon’s, but all capable, if left unchecked, of creating chaos, of driving each one to the bottle. The members weren’t being insensitive, not intentionally. Mitch’s tantrum at home and Beth’s tears at work were big deals, to them. Different circumstances but the feelings are the same: anger, frustration, sadness and above all, powerlessness. Once traumatized by alcohol, now it was people, places and things that create the inner turmoil. The more sober one becomes the more he or she realizes how powerless they really are. Paradoxically, this is supposed to make you feel good.

As the shares continued, you reflect on events the last couple days that almost drove you to the brink. The ride home from SFO: You wanted to save your new company money and figured an old-fashioned taxi would cost less than an Uber. You were wrong. The ride had cost nearly twice as much. And on top of that the grungy vehicle stunk of body odor and god-forsaken foodstuffs. It was like sitting in a sewer and paying out the ass to do so. The coup de gras the driver’s digital payer was broken, forcing you to go into the house and find a personal check. While you didn’t make a scene in the taxi, you ranted and raved in your (thankfully) empty house. You’d spared the driver, but your anger had been so ugly and real. Wrath-like. Not just at the pathetic cabby at your company too, for wasn’t it their fault you had to pinch pennies in the first place?

The letter.

There was still the matter of the letter. The blackmail had come three weeks ago and counting, well past the 10-day time limit the extortionist had given you. Each day was laden with anxiety dipped in shame and sprinkled with fear. Even if nothing ever came of it, as you prayed, the letter had opened up a portal, revealing your defect like a cancer.  The gutless lie. Chaos.

To be continued…


Your kids call it “triggered.” When someone or something sets one of them off. It happens a lot. Snap! Snap! Snap! Teenagers. Sometimes it seems they are moving through mousetraps. Yet the genius of it is that they are not caught up in any one trap. The trap goes off. They yelp. Maybe lash out. Then let go. Maybe they return the insult. Maybe they shrug it off with a benign curse. Where are the seething long-term resentments that plagued you when bedeviled by others?

You held onto such pain, letting it fester, cultivating revenge fantasies and, whether acting on them or not, made it infinitely worse. One sprung mousetrap was all it took. The howl in your head echoed too long. Such was your pathology. An addict and introspect you could never let go. Like diabetes of the soul, your psychic wounds took forever to heal. You still remember slights from high school, about your weight for example, or lack of fighting skills. That girls didn’t think of you the way you thought of them. Such disturbances shaped your life. If only you had a word like “triggered.” Then you could have called out the bad feelings and smashed them like the mosquitoes they were. A bit of blood on the skin and some itching afterwards.

But no. You turned every bite into a bloody scar, scratching until your flesh was ragged, picking at the soar for weeks, trying to prolong its presence in your life. To this day you relish the occasional scab for the distraction it brings. You floss your teeth overly hard, drawing blood. Pleasure and pain intermingle -the physical as well as psychological. You understand cutters.

You don’t envy your daughters or any young person. Their world seems vapid and idiotic – an endless slew of You Tubes and disappearing dick pics. You must explain almost every reference to the 20th century. They do not read for pleasure and barely for school. If it’s not on their social media feeds they aren’t consuming it. Yet, you do envy their paradoxically thick skins. Their ability to “shake it off” is remarkable. Moving through the minefield of mousetraps with ease you find breathtaking.

Does a glib term like triggered render life’s brutalities benign? For all the very real talk of bullying and its fatal consequences, those maladjusted loners shooting up high schools, your children seem blissfully immune.

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Babies cry and feel… a lot

We feel something.

Maybe someone says something to us… or about us… behind our backs… in front of our peers. Whatever the stimuli, it trips one of our many internal wires and we feel. This is normal. Human beings are wired to act this way.

Then what?

Feelings are tricky. Where I often screw up. Where most people screw up. Instead of internally processing a feeling we act on it, often impulsively, as if it were actual and physical, like an insect biting through our skin. But there is no bug. And we lash out at it anyway. Our reactions to feelings have consequences. Energy is expended. Shit happens.

It’s perilous. Why? Because feelings are not facts. They exist only in our heads, inflaming egos with abstract drama. By definition, a feeling skews positive or negative, often to extremes. Therefore, we ought to think about a feeling (even if only 10 seconds) before acting on it. You’ve heard the expression “count to ten.” How many of us actually do that?


“How could you?!”

Instead we act. I feel hurt. I feel angry. I’m going to do something about it, let the dominoes fall where they may. This is when we write flaming emails. Troll ex-lovers. Why Russian President Putin burns tons of perfectly good food. Is it an overstatement to suggest that acting on feelings is how most if not all human conflicts are caused?

So much misery (in our homes, offices and the world) enabled by a small glitch in our wiring. Imagine if our code was “Feel. Think. Act.” Instead of “Feel. Act. Think.” The world would be better place. Certainly your home or office would.

An addendum about advertising:

Those of us in Adland have long known the best (and most creative) ways to get people to act is to provoke their feelings. “Illicit an emotional response.” “Tap a Responsive chord.” And all that jazz. Even with so many new tools we still think and operate this way. We fundamentally believe feelings trump facts in their ability to persuade. Our creativity depends on it. Bill Bernbach showed us the way and we have not looked back.


Oh, Bill, look what you’ve done!

Feelings are not facts, which is why they’re so human. Of course they inspire better ad copy than bullet points and rationales. Yet, for the very same reason feelings (and the behavior they inspire) are potentially radioactive. Especially on a personal and social level. The distance from insight to incite can be precariously short.


Like anyone, creative people get angry. The competition for ideas and constant criticism of them gets to us. As can a power mad account executive or yet another contrarian for a client. We see it all the time in TV shows but anger at work is seldom a topic discussed in a serious way. We may experience anger as online vitriol or behind closed doors. Occasionally it takes the form of a blow-up during a meeting. I’ve been on both sides of all of the above scenarios.

Anger, as we know, is almost always directed at a person or group of people. We may lose our temper and go off on that person. Or we stew in resentment, grumbling and sulking, remaining silent as a stone. If we are mature, we ask for a meeting with the subject of our anger to clear the air.

Alas, many of us are not reasonable when we’re angry. After all, anger is a volatile emotion and it often interferes with sound thinking. It does to me. I have trouble thinking straight. It’s almost like a bad trip. A strange, primitive rush overtakes me and I become flush. I may say and do regrettable things. I am outside myself looking down upon a beast. Mr. Hyde. The Hulk. God help those in the path of my wrath. Fortunately, for most of us this kind of anger is quite rare. Resentment is far more common. Passive aggressive behavior can spread like weeds in an ad agency –or any company. The petulant child is less overt (obviously) than tantrum maker but just as hurtful in the long run.

We always hear about the negative effects anger has for those on the receiving end of it. But it is also hurts the deliverers. Being in anger might be useful in therapy or righting certain wrongs but by and large it is a negative emotion and a defect/disease for those who are in it.

The angry outburst is ugly. But I feel the aftershocks are even uglier. An emotional hangover is debilitating and often leads to more bad behavior (lying, backstabbing, gossip, etc.), which, in turn, hurts our nestlings and us worse than the initial tantrum. Unless one is a Teflon tyrant these disorders degrade us professionally. But they kill us on a personal level, too.

We will be shunned but deeper down we rot from anger. Enough rot and we become garbage. Even a little rot is intolerable. To be reasonably healthy, as much rot as possible must be excised. All of it to be happy. That is why I would rather have the flu than carry around an emotional hangover. Dr. Bruce Banner aka The Hulk famously said “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” What the comic book does not tell us is how much you are despised a day later.

Have a nice day. It’s better for all of us.


A stranger yelled at my wife the other day in the park. She’d taken our terriers off leash and a pedestrian took offense. Apparently, this other woman didn’t just get mad, she was irate, letting loose a torrent of expletives. My poor wife said she was too dumbfounded to respond, she just stared at this strange adult who was screaming at her.

Of course I felt bad for my spouse. On the other hand I’m pretty sure there’s a law against dogs being off their leashes. Even cute little buggers like ours. Regardless, that’s not what I want to discuss. What stood out for me about my wife’s tale: how rare situations like hers actually are. As mad as we might be personally, professionally, societally, we don’t yell at each other that much. Remarkable when you think about it. So let’s.

When was the last time someone not related to you yelled at you? For me, I can’t even remember. Maybe someone gave me the bird a few weeks ago from his car. But that’s about it. I’m guessing the road is where most verbal outbursts occur, yet people are generally moving and not in each other’s grill so to speak. I’m talking about screaming in your face. Like what happened to my wife. It’s pretty rare.

Not a good look…

Turning the tables when was the last time you yelled at someone not related to you? Even more rare, isn’t it? Civilized people like us just don’t go off on each other.

Expressing anger, even righteous anger, is fairly uncommon. We may get or be pissed off on a daily basis but we seldom, if ever, express ourselves that way. It’s just not in our nature. Or it has been mightily repressed. Either way, when someone does go nuclear we not only notice we are also genuinely shocked by it. It’s ghoulishly fascinating. Which is why Reality TV is so full of drama queens and douche bags: folks wouldn’t watch otherwise. It’s also why these shows are so un-real in the first place. The characters are coached into tantrums. Really real adults seldom yell at one another, let alone five times a day.

Reality TV people get angry to get filmed…

Unless of course they’re mentally unhinged, intoxicated or, as I implied earlier, related. Sad but true. If you add your children or spouse or a parent into the mix suddenly the outbursts aren’t so infrequent, are they? Admit it. I am. In some ways I think our inability to lose it with strangers fuels are propensity for grousing with our kin. There’s definitely wisdom to that lyric, “you always hurt the one you love.”

My wife’s experience prompted me to think about yelling and screaming… again. Many years ago I learned that I couldn’t handle anger very well. I seethed. My IQ dropped. Upon outburst I was an incoherent buffoon. Kind of like Homer Simpson strangling his boy. As Doctor Bruce Banner (aka The Incredible Hulk) put it, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

Don’t let this happen to you!

I still get angry, yes. But I try very hard not to lose it. What’s the point? I’ve discovered that even when I “win” an argument I still feel like crap. Probably why I drank too much. And I had to stop that, too. For me “emotional sobriety” is damn near as precious.

Anger is a gateway emotion to hell. When one opens his or her trap in response to it, we get a glimpse into that hell. Thank God, then, it’s infrequently we do.