The anger was rising in the room. Everyone could feel it. His face was red, fists and teeth clenched. Breathing was heavy.
Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. Perhaps it was your partner or your child that was upset.
I was becoming aware of the lump in my own throat. The pressure in my chest was moving up into my throat and my shoulders. Dread of this happening again. Desire for everyone to just be happy. Impulse to dismiss. Breathing. Regulating myself, even though I just wanted it to be over.
My child was really upset. Not just a little upset, but very upset. Circumstances were challenging for him at the time. It was understandable.
What do you do when someone in your life gets angry?
Do you leave, get out of dodge, go for a walk?
Do you fight? Let your own anger rise up? Put them in their place?
Do you freeze? Say nothing. Retreat into yourself.
What’s your own story about what’s happening here?
You may not have a memory come up right then, but later, when you revisit the scene, does it feel familiar? Did this happen when you were growing up? Or even as an adult at some point?
Our patterns, or how we deal with situations like this unconsciously, are set very early in our childhood. What we saw, felt, and experienced on every level is repeated, especially when we’re stressed.
Sometimes we handle things well. Either something was handled well when we were growing up or we’ve since learned a new way. And we’re probably in a pretty good place.
Sometimes we don’t handle things well. Then we beat ourselves up about it. Hindsight and forebrain make it much easier to see what you could have or should have done in that moment.
But we’re surviving in those moments. Our primitive brains are trying to keep us alive. Yes, it may be a big emotional expression from your child, but in your brain that expression of feelings may be seen as a threat. Logically, your 4-year-old isn’t going to inflict deadly force upon you, but your brain doesn’t know that. It’s ready to fight. Or freeze. Or run away. Whatever the pattern was that you learned when you were little, unless you’ve worked on it, you’ll be repeating.
When you’re in survival, you might feel yourself tip-toeing around, walking on eggshells, avoiding, or placating. Pacifying. Giving your child the cookie anyway just to make them happy again. Or yelling to get them to stop. Or storming out of the room.
That’s about you.
That’s about you trying to make it safe for YOU, making the other person ok or at least getting them to stop, or getting away from it so that you’re ok.
This helps temporarily, but it doesn’t address the pattern for you, or for them. And what does the other person learn when you give them whatever they wanted when they’re upset? Or when you yell? Or when you leave?
Be gentle with yourself here.
What do you need?
Remember that your survival brain is kicking in here for a reason. It takes time to create some new neural pathways in your brain (like super highways that most easily move the signals from one place to another inside your head and your body) and being gentle is the first step.
How do you change your pattern?
Imagining yourself doing something different is one way to start.
Another way is to practice it the way you’d like to have done it or experienced, after it’s over and you’re safe.
Apologize and literally do it over again, so that you can both have a different experience with it and heal the connection that may have been broken.
All these things help to make it different for you, and for them.
So let’s go back to the child who is upset. Really upset.
What does he need?
Safety. If you’ve ever had really big feelings, you may know that it can be scary sometimes. When someone is nearby and also not freaking out, that’s helpful. Not always possible, but helpful.
My rule is that the upset person can’t hurt themselves or anyone else. My job is to make sure that happens, whether we need to move outside, to a punching bag, or find another way to move through the energy.
Put your focus there and you may be surprised what shifts.