“How much pain they have cost us the evils which have never happened.” Thomas Jefferson
If I called the police or the fire department every time our dogs barked, I’d overwhelm the local emergency response system all by myself. Our dogs have grown more peaceful over the years, but they still tend to overreact. I must say that it’s comforting to know that they’ve got our backs. If there’s ever an actual threat to our safety, whether it’s an imminent earthquake, a smoldering fire or a would-be intruder, I’m sure that we’ll be warned. Of course, the price we pay for this natural alarm system is that we experience quite a few false alarms.
I’ve noticed that the dogs get particularly worked up over fire works, but those only explode a couple of times per year. The thing that seems to push their buttons the most are the hot air balloons we occasionally see on the horizon. On those cool mornings in the mountains, when those big, brightly-colored globes rise up in the distance, the dogs go crazy as they would if a big guy covered in tattoos and packing heat was standing at our back door. When the balloons go up, it’s almost impossible to calm them down.
It should come as no surprise that our canine friends are overly sensitive to perceived threats that are really no threat at all. That’s what watchdogs do, right? (Let the kidding begin) They let us know when those no-good cars pass by, alert us to those sneaky children playing next door and warns us every time the obviously ill-intentioned pest control guy, postal service worker or door-to-door salesman approaches our front door in broad daylight. Is it possible that a disturbed little lady dressed as a girl scout selling cookies could rob us at gunpoint someday? Of all the things I worry about, that’s just not one of them.
Almost none of the things our dogs bark at are actual threats to us, and so it is with most of the things we worry about too. As it turns out, we all have an inner watchdog that regularly barks at “girl scouts” and “hot air balloons,” and many of our inner emergency response systems are often overwhelmed as a result. Every time we worry, part of us feels the urge to fight, flee or freeze in our tracks. Our overreactions make it harder to function effectively, even though the things we worry about are usually harmless.
Before you worry needlessly and go barking at balloons, let me suggest three questions you might ask yourself first.
#1 – Is this really a threat?
Sometimes, there really are peeping toms in the window and gas leaking from pipes. It’s a good idea to be aware of our surroundings, but it’s possible to be both alert and at peace at the same time. If I ever actually call 911, I hope the person responding never has to say, “Sir, please calm down!” Worry is certainly a waste of time and energy when there’s no threat, and even in an actual crisis, our fears are no longer useful when they go to extremes.
When we take the time, even if it’s just a split second, to ask ourselves if the perceived threat is really worth worrying about, the answer is almost always, “No.” That honest answer is usually enough to calm us down and return us to our resilient selves. Even if the answer is, “Maybe,” we can take a few moments to investigate before we reach a final judgment.
If a person is yelling at you in a demeaning or manipulative way, tell them that you’re willing to talk when both of you are calm and leave . If they’re just frustrated and in the mood to argue, they’re like a hot air balloon. They may seem threatening, but they’re not. When they’re no longer seen as a threat, hot air balloons are actually fun to watch. If you let them get close enough, you can actually wave to the riders, and they’ll smile and wave back. Find the truth in what the frustrated person in front of you is saying and let the rest go. Save your worry for a true emergency. If someone actually becomes physically aggressive or violent, go ahead and call 911.
#2 – Will barking make it go away?
Some perceived threats may actually be good for us. If we give in to fear every time we feel it, we may miss important opportunities to turn our lives around. It may be that those attempting to teach us have a point. It may also be that they’re simply being controlling and manipulative. If so, what’s the harm in hearing them out anyway? That which we initially fear may be exactly what we need in the end. If not, it at least gives us a chance to hear where the other person is coming from and clarify our own perspective. Barking may scare away the bad guys, but it can also create distance between us and our true friends.
Even when our hot air balloons are truly harmful to our well-being, barking doesn’t make them go away any faster. Even if there’s something in our lives that truly needs to change, worrying rarely helps. When I ask parents with troubled teenagers, or spouses in troubled marriages, what they do to improve things, they often talk about how they reject or lecture, beg or threaten, sob or shout at their loved ones. When I ask them how effective their approach has been, they invariably say, “Not very.” When I ask them what they intend to do next, they usually say that they’re going to do more of the same, only with more gusto. That’s when I usually ask, “Are you sure about that?”
In times of crisis, our natural instincts can help us stay focused, but they can also distract us if we let them go to extremes. Even in actual emergencies, let fear move you to appropriate action without getting carried away.
#3 – What else can I do?
The short answer to this question is, “Be at peace.” There are thousands of things we can do to face life’s challenges more effectively, but what we do is not as important as who we are when we do it. When you’re temporarily lost in the face of life’s imaginary threats, clear your mind (meditation), fill your lungs (movement), and open your heart (magnanimity). As soon as you find peace inside, whatever you say or do on the outside will be fine.
Our dogs have learned to relax more in the presence of harmless people and things lately, but they still burst out barking at the back door from time to time. When they do, it’s usually another hot air balloon. Is it annoying? I actually think it’s funny now and comforting to know that the dogs are still looking out for us. I just reassure them that everything’s fine. I want them to know that they’ll never be punished for doing her job. In case any real threats eventually show up, I want them ready and willing to do what comes naturally to them. The same can be said for that watchdog in all of us, that part of us that worries so much. Be grateful for it. Learn to laugh with it when it overreacts and let go of the worry most of the time, but keep it around for those times when it’s truly needed.
What or who are the hot air balloons you bark at most?
What have you done to make them go away?
How has that worked for you?
What can you do instead?
Let me know.
Note: A version of this post was published previously at MisterMaguru.com by Dr. John C. Brailsford.