The Subtitle of this post should be “How to make sure your brain’s natural story-telling and defense mechanisms don’t screw up your relationships.”

I’ve been feeling incredibly overloaded this past week, and have been carrying around this weird sense of impending doom. It’s never one thing, but a hundred little things that, added together, have changed my usual, optimistic and perhaps even sunny outlook a bit darker than usual. The events in the news, ranging from skyrocketing gas prices, unrest in the Middle East, epic clashes between Government and Workers, to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have all added together to give me that sense of things going horribly wrong, and all beyond my ability to control or influence the outcome. Add in a bit of dental surgery, and I’ve spent a week going from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm into Eeyore with a bit of Oliver Stone added in, just for interest.

I hate this feeling.

I’ve found that this more pessimistic outlook can color daily reactions to normal stuff. There’s a couple of common psychological reasons for this. Psychologists call it transference, when we take our feelings about a situation or person and project it onto another; We can also take our unconscious feelings about ourselves and abscribe those feelings and motivations onto others as well. This means it’s really pretty normal for people to have a bad day and come home and yell at the wife or kick the dog- they are transferring the emotions they can’t express at work to others at home where it’s generally okay to express your feelings, even if they are wrongly placed. Projection, transference’s evil twin, takes all those self-doubts you have and lets you accuse others of having the same problems, adding interest to that old phrase of “Misery loves company.” So when I’m feeling less than great, I’ll assume everyone else feels the same as me, even when they don’t- which is pretty dangerous especially when you’re in a crappy mood to being with.

These two very normative and (mostly) healthy ways we use to try to minimize our pain and deal with our emotions get a lot of play online. The way moods and memes spread online like a virus is often the result of projection wedded to transference, and they can have the unintended effect of causing pretty unnecessary drama.

In talking with several friends this week, I’ve found that this happens easier than anyone realizes. Sometimes, we feel we know our online friends as well as we know our childhood friends. We assume they know more about us than they might, and we trust more easily, which also means sometimes we’re more vulnerable to hurts and slights as well. Add in the basic human nature that causes us to look for patterns, connections, solve puzzles and seek deeper meaning, and we can get ourselves into a real mess. We’ll take a few pieces of a bigger puzzle and then fill in the rest of the pieces ourselves, but it often ends up being confabulation. I’ve seen folks take little bits and scraps of information and start to piece together massive plans, motives, sinister plots and more, (Something Glenn Beck specializes in…) – most of which are more dreams and fabrics of our imagination than reality. This tends to lead to real world drama and consequences that can be pretty unpleasant.

It’s easy when we’re waiting to hear back from someone, for example, to assume that the lack of response is because they’re mad at us, or there’s something else wrong, especially when we “see” them playing on Twitter, and Facebook and talking to others. You think “Did they get my mail? Do they care? What did I do wrong?” “Why won’t they respond to me when they have all this other time on their hands? Maybe they think they’re too good for me.” You can start wondering if you said something inappropriate in the email, left the wrong impression, or god knows what.

In reality, the person you were waiting to hear from was swamped with work, spent a few minutes trying to catch up with folks on Facebook, but in no way was dodging your email or calls, they simply were caught up in the flow of their daily lives. This includes dentist appointments, kids and homework, working out, eating, grocery shopping, banking, family stuff, sleep- you name it. There was no malice, or even poor intent- only a delay that we normally would have tolerated easily in the days when we sent everything by snail mail.

The instant availability of responses and the ability to eavesdrop on the lives of your friends and business colleagues can cause us to have too much information about some things, and not enough about others. We start to make up stories, something our brains do automatically, fitting all the pieces together and inserting other pieces in that really don’t fit. While this is great if you’re writing a detective novel, it’s kind of crappy if you want to maintain good friendships. Simple mistakes can be seen as intentional slights, and in the end, through no one’s fault, relationships can be damaged.

As a result, I’m trying not to read too much into tone in emails. Your mood effects how you read the words more than what’s on the page and what the other person said. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and ask for clarification when I’m confused or even call folks so we can match words and tone more closely than by other methods. When in doubt, ask- don’t assume and make it up on your own. You’ll likely guess wrong and create more drama for yourself than need be, when a simple two lines of “I was wondering whether or not this was a problem” will go a long way to making sure everyone’s happy.

In the meantime, I’m going to concentrate on having a little more fun, and turning off the news for a bit, and keeping my sights on what’s in my control, and let the rest of the world manage itself for a day or two. I’m pretty sure it’ll run just fine without my added stress.