A shouldaholic can go from peaceful to raging anger in mere nanoseconds.
This is not only a frightening experience for the shouldaholic themselves, but also for the trigger, the person who inadvertently set off an emotional flashback and had no intention of hurting the shouldaholic. From the trigger’s perspective, the shouldaholic’s reaction may feel like an OVER reaction, whereas from the shouldaholic’s perspective, the reaction (usually manifesting as rage) is perfectly rational and perfectly logical.
Why does this happen?
Usually there is a gap between what is expected versus what the reality is, and this disappointment or even hurt can hit unprocessed wounds or childhood trauma, often unconsciously and often causing overwhelming feelings of helplessness, grief, pain, anger, or… the most challenging shame!
A ping pong conversation starts up in our brain with different voices fighting to say completely opposite things like “Why are you so angry? You shouldn’t feel angry, you should do better that.” “I am so angry at this person, who has no right to do this to me.” “You should feel grateful for this job. You are over-reacting. They didn’t mean it.” “It really hurt what they said and I feel like they are talking down to me.” These voices go back and forth causing a very stressful situation inside our minds.
This infighting in our minds sucks up a lot of our attention, headspace, and energy. It causes us to time travel.. to the past, ruminating about things we can no longer change and to time travel to the future where a worst case catastrophic result is happening.
Well, our mind can’t really tell the difference between time travel and the present, so it goes into danger mode. It thinks it is in past or in the future where the thought is the reality. Stress hormones get sent all over the body to prepare for fight or flight. That’s where the rage comes for many of us. And then of course, the logical rational side (our executive functions) the go offline. So not only are we now enraged, this is also exhausting! So… double whammy against the effort be reasonable.
What Can We Do?
Breaking the cycle and spiral is super important so that you don’t do or say something you regret. As a parent, you don’t want to pass on your inability to handle your emotions to your children. You don’t want to continue intergenerational trauma. And the fastest technique other than humour is curiosity. (Side note: humour doesn’t always work, by the way. It can be super powerful depending the situation and the players, but it can really backfire.)
Ultimately, it’s hard to be furious when you are curious.
You know, like when people say “What is WRONG with you?!” Usually they don’t mean it out of curiosity, that comes from fury, and they usually already have an answer in their minds, like you are crazy, dumb, lazy, mean, etc. But if you can actually shift those questions from “What is WRONG with you?!” to “I wonder what is wrong?” or “How can you even THINK that of me?” to “I wonder what might be giving you the wrong idea?” or “How can you NOT see my simple and logical perspective?” to “I wonder what perspective you have and why?”
It’s really hard to be furious if you are sincerely curious.
Curiosity doesn’t require stress hormones and as soon as you put energy towards curiosity, your brain stops thinking you are in danger. If you can afford to be curious, you’re not in a life or death situation that requires life saving action. So it doesn’t need the stress hormones and you re-activate your executive functions. Bonus also, because your curiosity can then activate their curiosity and so you can de-escalate a bit.
It’s NOT Easy
I’m not saying this because it’s easy. It’s NOT, especially if your brain is wired for rage when you are disappointed or sad or confused or helpless or shamed. What I’m saying is this is an approach you can work towards that can help with breaking the cycle of fury and regret.
It takes awareness, learning a new skill, trial and error, and then practice. It’s doable. It’s not easy, but it can help prevent further escalation or the inflicting of trauma on other people, particularly the people we love.
Let’s heal together.