While I’m sure I’ve done other, more radically unpredictable things in the face of anger, I generally have one of three reactions to getting really, really mad:
1. Stony silence.
2. Hyper-articulate, vaguely Shakespearean yelling.
3. Wide-eyed, teary incredulity.
The option you get when I’m angry depends mostly on who you are, and the environment we’re in. I’m not one to make a scene at work or anywhere else public, and I can tone myself down to a very dull roar if I’m in my home with guests or extended family. So 1 and 3 seem to be the easiest options when I can’t completely lose my cool.
2 has only ever really happened with my parents (sorry, Mom and Dad), my brother (mostly sorry, Sean), and my husband (who has seen all three options, and probably prefers 1. Or none.)
I have freaked out at people who’ve nearly run me over on the street, or at teenage boys about to light something on fire, but in those instances, the yelling was much louder and short term, and accompanied by me levitating off the ground and turning into a flaming fireball of vengeance.
All things considered, though, I don’t have much of a temper.
And I don’t really love conflict… or cornflakes, as my mom calls it.
Which is why my 30s have been… well, eye-opening.
In the last 8 years:
I left a job and annoyed a lot of people in the process.
I worked my first truly corporate job, with its attendant corporate politics.
I started writing on the internets, where insane criticism blooms like ragweed in April.
I lived with sister roommates who liked to FIGHT… and I mean FIGHT.
I disappointed my parents significantly for the first time with my choices.
I got heartbreaking health news.
I had a two-year long distance relationship that resulted in me moving into a 474 sf apartment with my future husband and two teenagers (thank heavens we have 1200 sf now — I feel like a gazelle leaping across the Serengeti now.)
I moved a long way away from most of the people who unconditionally love me.
I took a position at a place where people express themselves very honestly, for better or for worse.
I got married.
That’s a lot of stuff. A lot of change. A lot of adjusting to new people and new environments, and figuring out the boundaries inherent in each one (and what would happen if you crossed them.)
My rampant Canadian politeness has been tested.
My ability to listen and not react has been tested.
My idea of how people should get along has been tested.
I’ve been raked over the coals by people I’ve never met.
I’ve been judged when I didn’t see it coming.
I’ve been the sacrificial lamb to someone else’s agenda.
I’ve been assessed as a good or bad friend based on limited data.
And I’ve gotten royally pissed off more times than I can count in the midst of all of it, and not handled it well.
Cornflakes. New cornflakes. Unexpected cornflakes. So many cornflakes.
How can I deal with all the CORNFLAKES?
Sometimes I mimic my late Nonna, chirping, “Shalom! Shalom!” at even the mildest hint of debate. In those moments, I want peace. I want people to get along. I want people to leave the dead horse alone, and bury it, if possible. I want equilibrium and peace and quiet and to see lambs prance around my tranquil mental landscape.
At other times, I pull a virtuoso Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”, attempting to level Tom Cruise with a Sorkinesque rant. I don’t end up with a court martial, though… just a bucketful of tension and frustration.
And then sometimes I turn into a girl of 13, breaking out in splashy, messy, blotchy tears when I get my feelings hurt, and I slam the door to my room like a swarm of bees and clowns is pursuing me.
None of those really work, though.
You can’t hide from things, you can’t possibly yell long enough that the other person will stop trying to yell back, and slamming the door just makes the dog upstairs bark.
So I’m learning to add a little milk to my cornflakes, and to let things run their course. To accept that it’s OKAY TO BE MAD FOR A BIT or to have SOMEONE MAD AT ME. I don’t have to freeze up like a deer in headlights… or go on the offensive like a giant SUV gunning for Bambi.
I read a book once that said that the most important thing any married couple can do is to learn to “fight fair.” To not daisy-chain your grievances, to stop planning your next diatribe and listen, to not threaten or lay down ultimatums, and to know when you’ve hit an impasse (and it’s time for everyone to go play a particularly violent game of Angry Birds.)
When you’re reading that advice with a cup of coffee and a smug, meaningful nod, it sounds exactly right.
When you’re standing in your living room, yelling and gesticulating wildly, it sounds like trying to switch from a wrestling match to a chess game… when everyone is already on the mat in their odd-looking shoes.
The nice thing, though, is that the reason for dealing with things appropriately now trumps any I’ve had before. I mean, there were always good reasons to do the right thing, but mistakes rarely amounted to much more than a bit of awkward tension.
Now the stakes are higher.
Now my choices have much more impact.
Now my mistakes echo into someone else’s life.
And, most importantly, when I work at getting it right now — and actually get it right — the level of satisfaction is off the charts. Huge lessons. Great moments. Giant hurdles overcome. A deeper connection made.
A surer footing for the next fifty years.
Hell, it almost makes the cornflakes bearable.