How reactive emotions escalate conflict and encourage you to justify your behavior
I’ve been teaching women stress mastery long enough to know that it is a life’s work. There are still times when I lose the handle on even my most trusted tools. When I do, I turn these mishaps into opportunities to learn from the aftermath of my reactive emotions.
In a previous post, I wrote about how to make good decisions in a crisis and offered up 6 reminders that help keep me on track. The second one was:
Know that if you’re triggered, you’re also in pain. When I get upset, I take a pause. That pause really helps me identify what’s going on with me, like: “I’m really angry.” Or “I’m afraid.” Or “I’m so confused.”
Know that if you’re triggered, you’re also in pain. The reminder to pause can be a game changer for you. Click To Tweet
This reminder to pause has been a game changer for me, and I try not to leave home without it.
In this story, I skate right past this reminder and into a collision with my own outrage. It was painful, but the experience gave me a deeper understanding of how an emotional reaction can really get the upper hand when you’re not paying close attention. I also saw just how strong the impulse can be to justify my behavior afterwards.
This is not an easy story to tell – definitely not one of my finer moments. But it’s a great example of the lessons we can take from losing our cool.
My Run-in with the Woman…and Her Little Dog, too…
One of my favorite activities is roller blading on the trail near my house. One evening, as I was approaching the bridge over the river, I saw a group of young women up ahead. They were chatting on one side of the trail with their dogs sniffing around on the other. I had a pretty good head of steam going and didn’t want to stop my rhythm, so I began to call out loudly, “On your left.”
They heard me call and started to reel in their dogs and move to one side. Except for one woman. She moved over with her friends, still chatting away, but she left her little dog on the other side with his leash strung across the path like a trip wire.
I kept my pace, continuing to call, “On Your Left. ON YOUR LEFT. ON YOUR LEFT!”
The closer I got, the more apparent it became the woman was unaware of anything but the conversation she was having with her friends.
What was not apparent to me, was my reactive emotions rising. My focus shifted from relaxing and paying attention to my breathing, to anticipating the lack of courtesy I had experienced so many times in the past with people failing to manage their pets on the trail. By the time I came to a full stop I was about two feet from her face, with her dog’s leash up against my waist. I repeated forcefully, “ON! YOUR! LEFT!”
Well, she heard me this time! But she was frozen like a deer in the headlights, with me, this outraged stranger, in her face yelling, “Would. You. Please. Move. Your. Dog!?”
She jumped like I had slapped her. Then she started backing up, screaming, “I Can’t Move Him! I Can’t Move Him, I’m Trying, He Won’t Come!”
So, there I was, drenched in sweat, bearing down on her like a nuclear reactor in meltdown…
As I watched her sheepishly pull on this thread of a leash with her tiny dog cowering at the other end, I found myself channeling Jack Nicholson from the movie The Shining. I began slowly reaching for her dog saying, “Oh, but he’s so small! Let me help you!”
I won’t repeat what she said to me after that, but I will say I was anything but calm as I launched into a searing lecture about the trail being a community space. Everyone’s responsibility to watch out for other people etc. etc. On paper, my lecture may have seemed completely reasonable, but given my level of emotional upset, every word coming out of my mouth was caustic.
She started screaming things like “Don’t you touch my dog! you *bleep*ing *bleep*” and eventually followed that up with, “Why don’t you just go ahead and die already!”
Well, the absurdity of this statement stopped me in my tracks. Once I was stopped, I was able to see my outrage for what it was… and I dropped my end of the rope. Standing there with her screaming at me, I asked myself what I truly wanted in that moment. It was definitely not this shouting match. I could see that nothing constructive was going to happen while either of us was this upset.
So, I turned around, and slowly skated away with her yelling after me.
As I sat in my car afterwards, the stress hormones were still pounding on the buttons of my reactive habits and promoting the strong temptation to justify my reactions. I knew grounding myself was going to take some time. Yet even though I was smack in the middle of a tsunami of outrage, somehow I was still clear about one thing: Whatever my mind was trying to sell me about this interaction, I knew that making up stories to blame the woman for her behavior or justify my own was never going to help me get in touch with my inner wisdom.
I knew what would help was to unpack the pain beneath my upset.
Feeling My Authentic Pain
Ordinarily, when I get upset, I try to look under my reactive emotions to find the authentic pain emotions beneath. These include:
- Anger about the way things are affecting me or something I care about.
- Grief over what’s being lost or something unfortunate that happened.
- Confusion about what I don’t understand.
- Fear of uncertainty.
Reframing my experience using these authentic pain emotions really takes the charge out of my mind’s initial reaction and the justifications that come with it. I usually find all four of these authentic pain emotions when I look closely. Naming each one helps me recognize, and honestly sit with, the authentic pain that comes with being human.
In this situation, I could see the anger that was fueling my outrage: anger about the interruption to my work-out – yes, but also the anger I was packing around about other things happening in my life. I felt grief over having my peaceful evening roller blade hijacked by such an upsetting exchange, but it also threw a spotlight on the grief I was feeling about my troubled marriage. I had some significant confusion about the woman’s behavior, as well as some resistance on my part to sit with all the uncertainty in my life that I was facing at the time.
Resisting the Temptation to Justify My Behavior
As I calmed down, I was able to see how over-the-top my own behavior was. Plain and simple, I was triggered and let my reactive emotions take charge of my behavior. If I had recognized how upset I was and remembered to take a pause earlier, I would have been less upset by the woman’s inattention.
As it was, I came away with a deeper understanding of my tendencies to use justification to disregard the fact that if I’m upset, I need to keep my mouth shut until I’m calmer. No if’s, and’s or but’s.
Later, when I shared this story with people close to me, I found myself reaching for the pause button again and again. They were all so outraged by this young woman’s reaction that they didn’t even consider my inappropriate behavior. “How dare that woman say that to you? That’s horrible!”
But each time I listened to one of my friends or family members insisting I was in the “right,” I got the chance to revisit the temptation to justify my reactive emotions and my behavior. I got to take responsibility for my part, learn and grow.
I thought about this young woman telling her friends about this psycho roller blader who threatened to throw her dog into the river and imagined her friends expressing their outrage at the wrong done to their friend.
At the end of the day, I am really grateful for the awareness to learn from my mistake(s) instead of letting them fuel my defensiveness.
The next time you find yourself in the throes of an emotional reaction, try this out. Take a pause and wait until you calm down. Then take the time you need to examine the authentic pain emotions beneath your outrage, blame or self-pity. See if this doesn’t help deescalate your reaction.
And don’t worry if you can’t get to the pause button before your reaction launches. It’s never too late to learn from your experience. Keep in mind that when something pushes you to your learning edge, it won’t be pain free. But if you can be honest with yourself, you’ll be sure to find deeper meaning.
Take good care : )