I’m a very nice person … perhaps too nice sometimes. And truthfully? Underneath that well-groomed, well-behaved exterior, a tiger lies in wait.
The fact is I can get angry. Very angry. So I’ve had to learn how to work with the behemoth that is my anger.
Here’s how it goes.
Someone around me is having a bad day, or maybe a particularly harried moment. They snap. My hackles go up, and I snarl back. But then – instead of storming out, or allowing the moment to escalate into a back and forth that becomes an invective-hurling tirade – I retreat.
Or at least I try to.
I take myself off to another room, I close the door, and I do something I’ve found to be immensely helpful. I ask myself what’s going on.
In those tense moments, it’s so very easy to imagine the issue rests entirely with the other one. My mind can so easily spin and snap. How could she say that? What exactly did he mean?
I understand that I am the one who’s having the big reaction. Psychotherapists would say I am triggered.
Rather than being able to calmly let the other person just have his moment, and give him a compassionate reply or a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, I have to run down memory lane. In a nanosecond, my psyche replays all the times I felt shamed, or afraid, or bullied, or abused.
So instead of being present in the moment with that slightly grumpy person, I’m back in sixth grade, being humiliated in the girl’s locker room. Or my long-dead mother is standing in front of me shaking her finger, reminding me how selfish and impossible I am.
The path back to shame and anger is so well worn, I just have to go there.
And yet, there can be course correction.
What I’ve come to realize is that when I’m triggered, the other guy seems patently wrong. Just wrong … no matter what. My oversized upset is usually far bigger than the situation merits. Which is why holding my tongue and retreating is such a good idea.
Once I’m alone, the first thing I do is to allow myself to feel as upset, outraged, fearful and bewildered as I want. I give myself a break – knowing that this psyche has some dings, and that I will eventually work my way back to a calm frame of mind.
I also remind myself that moments like these are inevitable … and that I can learn from them every time.
Instead of spinning endlessly through the story of what just occurred, I take a tender look back into my past. Sometimes I can even remember a similar time from childhood when I felt so powerless, or vulnerable, or afraid.
If I need to have a cry, I do. Or perhaps I do a little journaling in the moment. Either way, I sit with my feelings until I feel myself calm down.
Then, most importantly, I remind myself not to take the other person’s upset personally. Sometimes, this is the hardest thing to do – because like I said, that path of shame and rage is so well worn.
The truth is that the other person’s upset probably has nothing to do with me. Chances are that she also feels horrible in that moment.
And, of course, I need to clean up where necessary. Did I cause some harm here? I open my eyes and take a good hard look, because I also know this: I am imperfect — and I’m going to make a lot more mistakes in my lifetime.
If there is some personal responsibility I need to take or an apology I need to make, I do it immediately. A clean slate also helps my psyche stay calm and relaxed.
The bottom line is this: when we own our anger – really own it, by sitting with it and even exploring it – we can heal it. These days I’m not as angry as I used to be. Instead, I find myself getting humbler and humbler.
Each time I sit with my triggers, I understand just a wee bit more about this complex, crazy creation that is me.
So my tiger is learning how to lie down and relax.
And that makes life all the sweeter.