Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Chicken from Hell

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Our expectations about how the world will respond to us are often limiting and self-fulfilling — and can feel like being gripped by a Chicken from Hell.

So there’s a new dinosaur in town, Anzu wyliei, the Chicken from Hell. Eleven feet long, weighing 500 pounds, “a really absurd, stretched-out chicken” (as one scientist described it). “Nightmarish” says the Daily Beast. “[A] cross between a velociraptor and an ostrich.”

And a great blog post title.

But it’s related to what I want to talk about today. Really. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon psychotherapists and -analysts call “transference,” the capacity we all have to project a hologram from the past onto people in our present and to interact with the hologram as if it were real. We generally engage in transference in times of stress, when we’re taking risks or feeling insecure or unsafe. The hologram represents what we expect to happen, how we expect to be treated or viewed. And the ways we behave when we’re engaging in transference usually, ironically, guarantee that our expectations will be fulfilled.

Here’s an example: It’s Parent-Teacher night. Ms. Z is a little nervous about meeting her students’ parents. But she’s ready with folders of student work and lists of scores that bolster her evaluation of each student’s performance so far.

Ms. Z was doing just fine until Skippy’s parents showed up. When she described her curriculum, Skippy’s dad made a sour face. When she indicated that Skippy’s writing was a little undisciplined, both parents looked at her in surprise. “But he loves to write!” they exclaimed. Ms. Z suddenly felt extremely defensive. “Well, he might love to write at home,” she said. “But he doesn’t love to write in school. And that’s got to change!” Ms. Z’s comments carried an accusatory tone for the remainder of the conference; Skippy’s parents sat stony-faced to the end and didn’t thank Ms. Z when they left.

This is a story of transference. It’s an interesting example, because it shows how little someone has to do to activate anxiety in someone else. In this example, it was the sour face and the surprised comment about Skippy’s writing that set off the psychic alarm inside Ms. Z. She had grown up with faces like that and negative judgments about her abilities. Though she tried to fight off these contemptuous messages when she was little, she nonetheless successfully internalized them in such beliefs as “I’m not smart” and “I don’t really know what I’m doing” and “One of these days someone is going to call me out as a phony.”

Often these beliefs were silent or at least quiet inside Ms. Z. But this parent-teacher conference released them as a howl. Without even thinking, Ms. Z blocked the parents’ imagined contempt by expressing it about them. “I’m not the incompetent one,” she seems to be saying. “You are.”

Where’s the hologram? Ms. Z projected an image from her past onto Skippy’s parents that embodied her expectations of how they felt about her (based on how others from her past had apparently felt about her): that she was stupid, incompetent, and self-deceiving; that she was contemptible. Because this hologram was so convincing to Ms. Z, she (1) couldn’t see Skippy’s parents or discern their actual thoughts and feelings about Ms. Z’s class and (2) responded to a reality that she had in effect created. Her response, which she had perfected as a child, was to deflect others’ contempt and judgment by going on the offensive and accusing them instead. And lo and behold! By doing this she ensured that Skippy’s parents left feeling the contempt and judgment for her that she most feared.

What does any of this have to do with the Chicken from Hell? The way I see it, the anxiety that fuels transference, that powers up the hologram, is a Chicken from Hell. The expectations of blame, judgment, censure, inadequacy, etc., that we have constructed through our lives can be as “nightmarish” as an 11-foot, 500-pound velociraptor ostrich. These terrible feelings can come out of nowhere; they can come with incredible speed; they can appear sometimes as a stretched-out chicken, sometimes as a velociraptor, sometimes as an ostrich; they are always totally convincing and they grip us in their claws without mercy.

And they can really screw up our relationships.

Just as the discovery of Anzu wyliei is exciting, so is uncovering your own Chicken from Hell. For, if you can see that thing coming, you can protect yourself. You can prepare for it, think differently about it, notice your instincts and wonder about them, try entirely new behaviors and see what happens. You can say,

“Here comes my Chicken from Hell, Anzu wyliei, my nightmarish, absurd dinosaur. There was a time when this creature was a genuine threat, when I was afraid for my safety or my integrity or my right to exist, when I feared I’d be abandoned or destroyed, when I thought I’d lost the love or protection or admiration I desperately needed.

“But that dinosaur is dead. It’s a pile o’ bones somewhere in North or South Dakota. The thought of it still terrifies and controls me, but if I can remind myself that it is a memory, an expectation, that it is not necessarily real right now, then maybe I can try something new.”

What might you try?

You could try peeking out from behind the hologram projector to see what the person you’re interacting with is actually doing. Maybe they won’t live up to your expectations; maybe they’ll treat you differently from what you anticipate. You could try protecting yourself from situations you know will activate your anxiety either by avoiding them entirely or arming yourself with tactics you know you will use to maintain your balance and sense of agency.

You could try unearthing the beliefs about yourself the Chicken from Hell represents. You could generate new, more accurate beliefs and say them to yourself and post them all over your apartment and carry them with you on index cards so you can refer to them whenever you need to. You can label feelings and think about their significance to you, what they mean, when you’ve felt them before, where they came from.

You could try getting curious about what your feelings might be telling you about other people, how they might be feeling right now. You could wonder why you’re so quick to assume you know what’s going on inside someone else. You could ask a clarifying question or two. You could practice affirming what is true and good about yourself and commit to taking care of yourself when you’re in emotional trouble.

And, when you’re feeling especially strong, you could try looking at that absurd chicken and laughing. Or hell with it: you could take out an imaginary shotgun and blow the damned thing away. Your Chicken from Hell deserves to be extinct.

1 Comment

  1. Awesome. What makes this metaphor work so well is that the chicken from hell is literally a dinosaur – as extinct and irrelevant to the present day as our own preconceptions from out remote past. Or, if not irrelevant, then relevant in precisely the same way: As an interesting artifact that shows us how we arrived where we are today. But the danger it posed is long gone. Very nicely put!

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