Remember when you were a kid and you’d see a snail or some other little slug-like animal inching it’s way along the ground? And when you’d touch it, it would curl itself into a ball or zip back into its shell? Well, that’s the image I have of myself when someone gets mad at me. I react by retreating to a hurt, wounded place in which I’m all emotion and very little reason.
And I think many women are like me. It’s a common female trait to experience a really bad feeling in the face of an angry person, whether that person’s anger is justified or not. Just the mere fact that someone is angry is enough to screw you up!
Many of us just can’t tolerate other people's anger. We get confused and flooded, vulnerable to feeling like a bad person. Emotion takes over, jamming our thinking processes. That awful feeling gets way too big and makes us respond from a defensive position that is usually unreasonable, in the true sense of that word.
It’s based on an unfounded belief that if someone is mad at you, you must have done something really wrong and that anger is justified. But it’s way more than that. The bad, bad feeling speaks volumes about our primitive fear of being despised, blamed and rejected.
These thoughts originated from something that happened yesterday when I was told that a neighbour was “furious” with me for having done some renovations without informing him about the noise and disruption. I felt so badly when I heard that someone was furious with me that I didn’t stop to think, “Whoa, wait a minute, isn’t that a bit over the top?” Like the snail, I retreated to the defensive position in the face of anger, feeling really badly.
But this time, I worked on myself to engage the thinking processes and not just the emotions. I realized I’d made a mistake and that I should have informed him in advance. And then, I realized that it was an innocent mistake, and that I didn’t inform him not because I wanted to hurt him but that I just didn’t think about it. By then, I was feeling a bit better.
Then I realized that having a good relationship with my new neighbour is important to me and that maybe he might need the space to express his anger at me in person so we could regulate the situation and move on. I was ready to take responsibility for the fact that I had screwed up a little bit, but not for anything more and I was no longer afraid of experiencing his anger.
So I rang his bell, and by the time I got to that part, I had gotten myself up on top of it all. Even if he blasted me (which didn’t end up happening), I wasn’t in that bad feeling state. I could see that it was his problem – not mine. I was back being centered where I usually am and proud of myself that I’d calmly faced down someone who was furious with me. By becoming more conscious of how I was permitting emotion to override reason, I was able to recalibrate the balance and get the emotion back to the level that the situation warranted.
I often use the metaphor with clients who are daunted by something challenging to “pour some steel in your spine.” That image helps people stand straighter and feel stronger. Remember, we don’t want to lose ourselves in the dramas of others.
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life. I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com and www.runawayhusbands.com.
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