Tradition and the Pavlovian Response

Our neighbour inadvertently ruined our sheets this week. Instead of letting us know he was going to spray his new fence panels with wood treatment using a high-powered spray-gun-thingy, instead of even checking over the fence to see that a) we weren’t out in the garden or b) didn’t have anything close to our side of his fence which would be ruined by his inept spraying, he went ahead and sprayed. The white sheets my husband and I chose together as our first married sheets were hanging out to dry (this being British Summertime, air-drying days are few and far between and it behoves one to take advantage).

A particularly large flourish by the neighbour with his spray gun managed to liberally sprinkle the entire corner of our garden, and every piece of bed linen, with fence treatment. His response when my husband went round was “Wash them and if it doesn’t come out, get back to me” (he did also have the good sense to apologise). But seriously! So we washed them again (I throughout muttering under my breath about how, had I inadvertently sprinkled someone’s washing with indelible muck, I would be falling over myself to pay for their careful laundering by a professional, then to replace the sheets if said professional was thwarted by the sheer stubbornness of the concotion required to make the fence weatherproof) and of course the stuff remained.

I was very upset about having to buy new sheets (despite the neighbour’s offer to pay) cos, well, these were special sheets. Our first married sheets. Needless to say I found some perfectly good options and my husband and I ordered them but I was STILL upset.

Which brings me to tradition and the way we get soooooo wrapped up in it. After all, the sheets themselves weren’t particularly special. Middle-of-the-range department store sheets with matching pillowcases. Fairly standard really. What upset me was the loss of something which meant something. These sheets were the ones we came home from our honeymoon to find sprinkled with confetti and festooned with streamers. These sheets had signified a new beginning – the start of sharing a bed with the man I would spend the rest of my life with. These sheets brought a little feeling of joy to my heart each time I looked at them and remembered how we chose them together before we got married, excitedly anticipating the moment we would first share them.

And now they’re trash, I need to consider that actually the memories won’t alter or become less meaningful – what I’ve lost is the trigger for those memories. As surely as Pavlov’s dog started drooling when the bell was rung, those sheets made me think of happy times, made me happy.

Which made me wonder about what other traditions I’ve linked into emotionally and created a trigger for myself. The most obvious one is Christmas – the decorating of the tree on Christmas Eve whilst listening to a CD of Bach’s Christmas Music has become such a strong triggered link that even now, whilst searching for the music on Youtube, it had to be precisely the right recording and I could almost smell the pine needles and see the fairy lights.

Another is Coco Pops for Birthday breakfast. A long held tradition in my family and this year I forgot (v sad moment on my birthday morning making scrambled eggs on toast – normally a treat but on this occasion a huge let-down). We usually have Coco Pops as a ‘weekend cereal’ now, and even then some of the excitement and anticipation of Birthday Morning accompanies the first bite.

Then there are the negative triggers, like clothes shopping (stereotypically loved by girls) – ruined for me by being dragged around the town centre as a child by my mother, who went to every store, looked at the same item (to compare prices) and almost inevitably ended up buying the garment at one of the first two stores. I have begun the process of unconditioning myself from this trigger, but it has been surprisingly difficult and I often find that clothes shopping raises my stress levels out of proportion to the amount of actual stress experienced.

There are national traditions too, which seem to pervade, and some people cannot function without these traditions being upheld – indeed have been known to pour wrath and ire on those who don’t. Gradually traditions change but there will always be those who have linked into them as a trigger for a specific emotional event in their life, and deeply resent any change to the ‘right’ way of doing things.

Amazing really, how so much psychology slips right under our radars.

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4 thoughts on “Tradition and the Pavlovian Response

  1. Write it anyway m'dear. Sounds like a gorgeous post. Because it's YOU – and that's the thing: we all have different things which make us tick, and which ignite us and fill us up, and it's fascinating.

    And yeah. Paint on the sheets. Except it was brown and there was SO MUCH OF IT! We still have them somewhere, but since we moved I have NO idea where. We'll discover them someday and figure out something to do…

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  2. Aw, that's a real “paint on the sheets” that could be it's own saying, not quite as graphic as “kick in the crotch” let's say, but still a bummer. Can you dye the sheets? Get a tie-dye kit, have some drinks with Husby, listen to some 70's, hippy tie-dye music and make a day of it! Then you'll have THAT memory. And you'll probably still see some fence sprinkles, but what the heck. I know what you mean though. I don't know normally get excited about things around the house, but there are certain items, mostly those from my husband's house, the original Comfytown, that I have an unnatural attachment to. I started a post about it, but there's not really much point other than the memory that goes with them, the feelings you feel when you look at them. My son thinks I'm weird for caring about those things, but he doesn't feel the same feels. I get it, ring my bell I'm drooling with you, my friend!

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