As a therapist, I sit in the presence of individuals, couples and families who share stories about the challenges in their interpersonal relationships. What remains with me, after decades of being a privileged listener, is a litany of complaints about how yelling is the primary means of communication between them and if not a direct reaction to disagreement, it becomes the default mode when the temperature rises.
As a human being who does my level best to take the professional hat off in my own interactions outside the office and sometimes failing miserably, I know all too well, the temptation to increase the volume of my voice if I feel I am not being heard. The paradox is that many put shields up when they feel aurally assaulted and don’t hear all that is said. People often respond better to whispers than roars.
I’m an example of that as well. I grew up in a household that was primarily peaceful. I can count on a few fingers the number of times when conflict was verbalized between my parents and between them and myself. In my nearly 12-year-marriage that ended when my husband died, such was not the case. He was intimately acquainted with anger, since his childhood home was fraught with it, and he carried it like a bag of rocks into our relationship. Although much of our decade-plus-two was loving, major aspects were toxic and was lacking the emotional safety everyone deserves.
After Michael died, I wore the mantle of single parent to my then 11-year-old son, and not always as gracefully as I wanted. We went head to head on many occasions. There were moments when I felt ill-equipped to keep frustration under wraps. I did what I counseled clients to do; take deep breaths, walk away, take a time out, attempt to make sense of what was going on, responding, rather than reacting.
When he was 14, my son told me “Mom, I’m an undercover angel sent to teach you patience.” My incredulous response was multi-fold. I told him that, apparently, I was a lifelong learner since he was still teaching, and I was still learning. I added, “But you don’t believe in angels,” to which my teenaged wise man volleyed back, “Yeh, but you do.”
One day, in a fit of exasperation about his unwillingness to clean up after himself, I yelled my last. What caused this turnaround? He laughed at me and said, “I love pushing your buttons and watching you lose your temper.” Not wanting to give my power to an adolescent by acting like one, I began to use my filters and go heart-to-heart and not head-to-head with him. Many were the times I needed to clamp my hand over my mouth, lest what might come out of it could lead to guilt and regret. Did we stop disagreeing? Did he suddenly pick up after himself willingly or keep his agreements with me? No. Did I tend to want to make him wrong for not behaving as I wanted him to? You bet. The good news is that we both survived his adolescence with relative sanity intact. He is now 32 and I can’t recall the last time I let loose verbally, even in the midst of disagreement with him. These days, when I know we are about to venture into treacherous waters, I practice the conversation in my head and ask myself what a win-win outcome would look like. It includes keeping communication below a dull roar.
For some, yelling is an instinctive reaction to feeling emotional pain in the same way it might be in the face of physical pain. If you fall and scrape your knee, or stub your toe, your initial inclination is to grab that body part and howl. When it is a momentary outburst, it is a release of energy. Once it dissipates, it is possible to ease back down to a calm mode. When it is prolonged is when it takes ahold of us and we are at its mercy.
If that is all you experienced in your home, it may be a hard habit to break. Imagine being recorded going full bore, and having it played back for you. What might you feel? It is not likely to be remembered as one of your proudest moments.
Another concept relates to emotional hijacking, a term that was brought into psychological parlance by Daniel Goleman, PhD, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence. He describes the ways in which the part of the brain called the amygdala reacts when in a stress inducing situation.
The loss of temper can be graphically described as ‘flipping our lid,’ as I have seen it demonstrated. Make a fist out of either hand as you place that thumb over it. When the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that manages emotional regulation, gets stimulated, imagine your thumb popping up.
I know many who offer potent ideas for creating appropriate boundaries that may prevent upping the amps on anger. One is my friend Reid Mihalko and he offers two pieces of advice “Say what isn’t being said,” so we are not withholding our feelings and “Always leave the campground better than you found it.” Good guidance even if you aren’t a Boy Scout.
Another is a former colleague named Glenn Gausz, with whom I had worked for many years in an out-patient rehab program before he died of cancer. He was wise and phenomenally experienced in the fields of mental health and addictions. He was my go-to guy at the office when I want to pick someone’s brain about tricky situations. In a staff meeting, he was sharing his response when an insurance company didn’t provide the support for treatment that his client needed. His response was “That’s unacceptable.” Plain and simple. No wiggle room. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to, but he did speak firmly and authoritatively. I imagine that the person on the other end of the line did a cartoon double take. I have since adopted those two words as my default if nothing else works.
“Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” ― Ambrose Bierce