Our extreme emotions all have quieter counterparts, which help us.
If we listen carefully to ourselves, then we can work out what these quiet emotions are, and listen to them.
A major reason we have extreme emotions, is because we haven’t listened to the quieter versions earlier.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
THE ESCALATING SPIRAL
Little Jimmy is six years old. He is playing quietly, and builds a big tower with toy bricks. He nudges his mum to tell her. She is on the phone, doesn’t see his tower, and says ‘Shhh!’ and turns away. He feels frustrated at being ignored. His mother feels frustrated at being interrupted.
He pushes the tower closer to his mum and starts to say ‘Look! Look!’ His mother explodes with anger, and shouts at him, pushing him backwards into the tower of bricks, which falls down. The boy cries loudly. The mother says to her phone ‘Sorry, I’ll have to call you back.’ The mother then shouts at the boy that he should learn to be quiet when Mummy is on the phone. The boy, distressed at the loss of his tower, cries inconsolably.
HOW WE LEARN PATTERNS
The above is a pretty straightforward example of a normal household. To an extent, we all get by with a limited number of such incidents, where none of us escape with glowing references!
But the social patterns of behaviour we learn when young, can end up becoming regular adult patterns of behaviour. Thus, in adulthood, Jimmy may repeat a similar pattern.
Let’s imagine he becomes an architect. He is near completion of a building he has put his heart and soul into. He is at home, and wants to share the plans with his wife. However, his wife is on the phone to a friend… You can imagine how the scene might play out. Perhaps they both end up in an argument, with her phone call disrupted, and his mind frustrated.
INTERNAL VOICES AS ADULTS
We don’t need other people to repeat such patterns. Sometimes we play all the parts ourselves.
So, sometimes adult Jimmy may be on his own. He creates something in his mind, perhaps a good idea. He wants to develop it, but needs confidence. He reaches out to another part of himself to take up the idea and put it into action. Unfortunately, that other part of him is modelled on his mother’s angry response. In his own head, he develops the idea that his new idea will be disruptive to the status quo.
And so he answers himself back with a rebuff, telling himself that he should not develop the idea, as it will interrupt everything else he is involved in. His idea self responds with frustration. His other self responds with anger. Soon, he is experiencing an internal spiral of escalating anger. It is so quick, that he cannot quite work out why it happens. All he knows is, he regularly gets angry at himself, and then ends up with a sense of depression and self-alienation.
How can we prevent alienation, in childhood and in adulthood?
Let’s go back to Jimmy and his mother. What was needed, arguably, was better negotiation between the two of them, early in the interaction, so that conflict could be avoided.
I won’t prescribe how this should happen. Perhaps the mother could take time out of her phone call to dip into Jimmy’s experience. Perhaps the mother could develop a simple language of signs which express things like ‘I’m busy right now but that looks brilliant’ (perhaps with a thumbs-up). There are any number of ways.
But all routes to reducing frustration involve catching it close to its root, and providing a wise and sensitive response early enough. This prevents the escalating spiral of anger.
Just for today, try to listen to your own wishes and aspirations. You have two parts to you:
There is the part (Jimmy) who is bursting with things you want to do
And there is also the part (Jimmy’s mum) who is protective of the usual business, and does not want life to be disrupted
If you can catch your dreams when they are quiet and happy, and acknowledge them, then you can protect their preciousness before they turn into frustrated anger.
Equally, if you can manage your business-as-usual self, then perhaps you can teach it to accept interruptions to your usual day without getting angry at new ideas.
How could you get better at allowing your inner ideas-person, and your inner controller, to co-exist?
If we can learn to listen to our inner emotions early enough, we can catch them, and negotiate with them, before they escalate into anger.
Some of us learned patterns of escalating anger in childhood. Perhaps we had a parent who was impatient, or who didn’t know how to negotiate sensitively and kindly with us.
Perhaps we even repeat those patterns now, letting relationships become angry, instead of being able to adapt gently to context.
Additionally, perhaps we internalise arguments we experienced in childhood, and never quite reconcile our inner dreamer with our inner controller.
The good news is that, as adults, through careful self-reflection or counselling, we can find a better accommodation between the different parts of ourselves, and achieve some peace.