Never Walk in the Front Door Angry

Who do you want your family to see?

Posted Apr 09, 2020

Picture your family at the end of the day relaxing after school, watching TV, calling their friends, and just being a family. Then you walk in the front door after just getting into an intense argument with one of your employees, boss, or claims examiner. You are in a dark mood. What effect are you going to have on your family’s mood? It won’t be great. Why would you want to do that to people you care about?

Prostock-studio/AdobeStock
Source: Prostock-studio/AdobeStock

Anger blocks awareness

When you are upset, you lose awareness of the effects it has on people around you. It is a destructive survival reaction that I now feel is temporary insanity. Then there is the effect of the mirror neurons in our brains. Your brain will reflect the actions and moods of others. For example, if someone starts to hysterically laugh, the people close by will begin to laugh. The same goes for a yawn or smile. Corresponding areas of the brain are stimulated to react in a similar way. It is a direct stimulation and not a psychological phenomenon.

When you walk into your front door in a bad mood, you are not doing anyone a favor. You might as well have walked in with a big bucket of ice water and just thrown it on your family. 

Intermittent reinforcement

You might say, “It only happens once in a while and most of the time they are excited to see me.” That may be true, but there is another bigger issue: intermittent reinforcement. It is well-known and documented that intermittent positive or negative rewards affect behavior more than consistent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is when you can’t predict when your actions will be rewarded or punished. A classic example is fishing. People can fish for days without much luck and suddenly the fish are almost jumping into the boat on their own. It is the anticipation of that epic day that keeps you coming back for more. Compare that to fishing in a trout farm, where you toss in your line and pull out a fish. Why not just buy your fish at the market?

Gambling is another powerful example. If you went to Las Vegas and always won, it would be great but would be more like collecting a paycheck. It is the lack of predictability that keeps you coming back for more.

Intermittent reinforcement is also a powerful force for negative interactions. I won’t go into detail and I have somewhat of a PTSD reaction thinking about it. But in prisoner of war situations, the anticipation of unpleasant treatments is as bad or worse than the ordeal. Frankel, in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes in detail his experience in the concentration camps. He stated that the worst part of it all was not knowing when it would end.

The essence of abuse

My mother would randomly fly into her rages. We could not tell when it would happen and even worse, we did not know what would set her off. It was independent of our behaviors and consequently, we always walked on eggshells. So, even when we were “having fun” together, we could never completely let our guard down. Since this was our “norm,” I was trained to always be hypervigilant, which carried well into adulthood. These are deeply embedded, permanent patterns. This scenario is the antithesis of what healthy parenting should be, which is providing a safe and nurturing environment.

If your family doesn’t know which version of you is going to walk through the front door, how can they really relax? They may be happy to see you, but not as much if they could predictably have someone come home in a great mood and excited to see them. Do you drop everything and spend time with them or do you have to “unwind” in front of the TV? Do you start complaining about your day or pain? Take some time and deeply visualize who they are seeing and what they are feeling when you walk through the front door.

The mirror neuron effect is powerful and your bad mood will quickly translate into your family acting out and not getting along as well with each other. Then it works the other way, with their behavior putting you into an even worse state of mind. In the presence of chronic pain, this is a common scenario.

Conversely, when you are predictably in a great mood, the positive effects on your home are powerful. You are now providing a safe and nurturing environment.

Don’t walk in the door upset

If you are angry or upset, do not come home until you have processed your frustrations. Your family does not deserve to hear about them. They are your problems and yours alone. If you have to vent, take out the piece of paper and do some expressive writing. Take a walk, breathe the fresh air, and calm down. Work out at the gym. Whatever activity you choose, make sure you have truly relaxed before you enter your home.

 Serenethos/Adobe Stock
Source: Serenethos/Adobe Stock

Our patients’ healing journey became much more powerful when we realized the family’s impact on pain and also the impact of pain on the family. Significant changes would often occur within weeks, once the whole family was involved. You love your family and they care about you. They are also dependent on you. Treat them well.