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Managing Emotions in a Sea of People Who Aren’t

I’ve been traveling. Inside of one week of travel, I’ve witnessed three separate verbal altercations amongst complete strangers. It seems like what we’re all doing with our collective pandemic stress is taking it out on each other.

These are tough times no doubt. Most, if not all of us, have weathered tough times before. This just feels palpably different. I witnessed a patron at a gas station convenience store shouting to the man behind the counter with nasty words and tone. A man who walked into an authentic European fine dining restaurant and just wanted dessert was refused by the restaurateur whose sole mission is a fine dining experience for his patrons. Hostile words were exchanged before the man left dessertless. And the list goes on and on…

One of those three verbal altercations was mine. Given that I rarely find myself in that kind of situation it caused me to pause after the incident. (for those curious types, my husband and I met indoors with a rep of a company for a 30 minute meeting we agreed to at our resort.)

The man in front of me was not friendly at the onset. It quickly took a turn for the worst when I politely requested he put on a mask. He proceeded to tell me his story of how he recovered from Covid in a day… which was ok, but nothing to do with why we were there. I thanked him for sharing his story, and then requested he cover both his mouth and nose with his mask as was required in his place of business and also as I requested. Lest we head down the wrong road here- this is not a political post nor is it intended to be. The story here is that when I (a customer) am politely requesting someone in a professional setting to follow requirements that are already in place, and then they progressively begin to become angry, unprofessional, and then cross the line into abusive and bullying, their lack of emotional control began (and begins) to be a problem.

I offered to sit with another rep if he wanted to pass us off to someone else in the company (he refused that option twice) rather his response was to continue on his bullying rant. I suspect this lack of professionalism is not the behavior that his company would condone, nor was it pleasant however, there is a bigger picture here.

Where is all this lack of emotional control coming from and how and when did it become acceptable to behave in these ways? Is it that a slippery slope of moral decline is to blame? Is it that some parents got too busy to parent and left parenting up to video games and teachers? Is it politicians who are supposed to be leaders that have behaved egregiously who have set the tone for what is acceptable behavior in our country? Is it that secretly people admire bullies for their gumption? Or is the problem that we are too tired, overwhelmed and stressed to care?

Where do we as a society (who used to be much more civil) decide that we can just tell people off, become inflammatory, bully or abuse another when someone does not share our opinion, or we can’t get dessert?

Sadly, this is often an issue of a lack of emotional regulation, or self control. Emotional regulation is that learned skill of being aware when your own emotions are escalating, and then taking appropriate action before you begin to spew harmful words or even worse attack someone physically. Emotional control means knowing when to leave the person or the room to allow space to restore calm before you act in a verbally or physically volatile manner.

Later I wondered, was this man who spoke to me in such an egregious manner a bully that has bullied people his whole life? Possibly. Is he someone that perhaps witnessed abusive behavior in his childhood and came to think of this behavior as acceptable? Maybe. Or is he someone that perhaps in any other context is able to demonstrate some emotional control over himself; his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and just lost his shit this one day?

I’ll never know. But there are too many like him these days. While I made a conscious and deliberate choice to set appropriate boundaries with his contentious behavior, including reporting his rude and unprofessional conduct to the appropriate personnel, the experience still left me with a deep sadness for this man and anyone who comes in contact with him as well. His actions seems to have become the behavior du jour.

Are we interested in turning this around? As a society do we even desire to care for other people’s hearts? Do we care that other people are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers and that we are all different and all united by our collective humanity?

Recently I read about the rise in verbal and physical assaults on airplanes of passengers being rude and abusive to flight attendants; people trying to do their job and follow the rules that are required of them. People showing up and verbally or physically assaulting another is not the world I want to live in or the world I want my kids, or kids kids to grow up in.

Perhaps it is my optimism, my polite midwestern upbringing where I first learned to care for other people including showing hospitality to strangers, perhaps It is my naivete, but I know we humans can do better.

Learning to know yourself, care for your own heart, and care for the heart of others who are different from you is a great place to start. Our culture has become so “me” and “my rights” centric, that we have forgotten about the other part- RESPONSIBILITY.

The responsibility to be a decent human being and citizen, the responsibility to understand the world is not going to operate based on your opinions and how you think it should spin, and the responsibility to exhibit emotional self control.

It is here I want to acknowledge neuroscience and how it fits into the big picture. When Mark, the man who spoke to me so egregiously was immersed in his destructive rant, he was in his primitive brain. That was the likely scenario (unless he previously planned his response if someone asked him to wear a mask).

When we are not aware of our own thinking or feelings in the moment, and we experience a trigger (anything we see, hear, smell, think or encounter that poses a threat either real or perceived) our emotional brain will engage rather quickly and default to fight or flight mode. This is true of all of us, and why knowing this about ourselves and others, and learning emotional awareness is key.

Exhibiting emotional control is crucial for relationships, workplace and career success, as well as the ability to show up in society as someone worthy of respect. When people act as if they are the only one that matters, they do a disservice to themselves as well as the people around them.

Many people with little self awareness and emotional control end up in relational difficulty or in legal trouble because of their actions. This lack of self control can be exacerbated by well meaning parents who believe their main role seems to be keeping their child happy- In the end, parents would do well to teach emotional regulation as the higher priority (and do so by providing natural consequences and modeling).

Why write on this topic? Full transparency, it is a bit cathartic for me to do so. Much more importantly, I see people, relationships, workplaces and society as a whole suffering from both incredible stress and lack of emotional awareness and healthy coping mechanisms which can be utilized when we have both emotional awareness and control.

Did my emotional brain want to take Mark outside and go a few rounds with him? Sure. (The word throttle did cross my mind.) I am human. A couple of decades ago I would have handled that situation very differently and not in a way I would have been proud of.

Knowing what I know now, my ability to exhibit emotional self control while under attack was not easy, but worthwhile. It takes effort, practice and patience to show up in the world both with people we know and those we don’t in a way that just reflects decency.

If you need help with emotional self control ; learning to behave in a way that would make life better for you and those around you at home, work, or anywhere, please reach out and seek mental health help.

Many of these issues are able to be helped by professionals knowledgeable about brain health, mental health, communication skills, conflict resolution skills and self awareness- all of which can be learned.

Let’s do better.

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