A mom and daughter were walking in the park.
I was Afraid for the Kid
Even though she wasn’t in danger.
I was walking through a public park and in the distance was the most normal-looking of scenes; a mom and her young child walking home together. It caught all of .01% of my attention, that’s how normal of an event that was.
Suddenly the mom yelled out at the daughter, “Hurry up! Stop straggling, carry your bag and walk properly beside me! We have to get home!!”
She yelled it out at her daughter as if nobody was around. It attracted the attention of a few people who casually turned their heads toward her before turning them back and focusing their attention again on whatever was they were doing.
Not me though. My head was still turned toward the mom and daughter with my full attention as if that scene was really threatening. The mom didn’t just yell at her kid, she scolded her hard. At one point her voice even crossed over into the range of guttural rage, and when it did my solar plexus constricted.
It happened so fast I wasn’t even aware of it. My enteric nervous system (a.k.a. gut) got tight and small, my heart rate started to beat faster, I likely had more than the usual amount of cortisol running through my veins, and my eyes were widened, fixated on the mom. Like a prey animal assessing a threat.
A few moments later the mom’s voice returned to normal, and the kid – who was likely used to being yelled at like that and didn’t skip a beat – soon resumed walking beside her mom, head down. I however was surprised that I had that involuntary, physiological reaction.
Belief: Anger is Volatile
It wasn’t just that the mom yelled at her daughter, I’ve heard plenty of parents yelling at their kids. It was that her tone went into that vocal range of rage that put me back on my heels.
My fear of anger comes from a father who used to yell and shout a lot so it’s not a surprise that I get these reactions to other people’s anger. What I noticed this time though was that my anxiety had me thinking that the little girl was in danger.
At that moment I had thoughts that perhaps the mom would actually rip the daughters arm off. I’m not kidding, that’s what my anxiety had me believing. Or that she would do something even worse.
Thinking about this got me to understand that I have a belief that anger is not only dangerous, it’s volatile. That it could erupt like a volcano at any second and you never really know when. Talk about walking on egg shells. If you were hiking around one of the beautiful volcanoes in Hawaii and the tour guide told you that it tends to erupt every now and then, they just never knew when, you’d be in a constant state of fear until you left.
I felt that anger was like that, or that people were like that. That when others experienced anger it was like lighting a flame near gunpowder or a tank of gasoline.
In my mind they were playing with fire. That once anger was allowed to be expressed, especially if it was a hostile expression, it would continue to build and build into rage and once that happened …
… it would completely take people over, consuming them and at that point they wouldn’t be able to control it any longer and bad things would happen.
Like a puppet they would have no control over their actions, almost like they lost themselves to the insanity of the anger, and that IT was now in control of them. Their inner beast came out like a werewolf, or like the Incredible Hulk and they were past the point of rationality.
Given this belief, it’s no wonder I walk about the world afraid that somebody’s going to blow their top. It’s also no wonder that I’ve learned to placate people. I’m putting the fire out when I do that to prevent an inferno. What I’m really placating though is my mind’s interpretation of what their anger is, an unpredictable, animalistic, overflow of violence.
I’ve always resented having the job of being the ‘keeper of the peace’ so to speak. I resented being the only one that was making sure the world doesn’t blow up. Everybody else got to go around not being careful with their anger, letting it build and be expressed however they wanted to. And so what tended to happen is that I would bend to their will so that bad things didn’t happen. I was co-dependent and a ‘nice guy‘.
Obviously most people are not horribly violent every day or else there wouldn’t be any of us left, so I know that my fear is out of sync with reality. But try telling that to my amygdala which convinces me every day that I’m in danger because at one important, developmental time in my life I was vulnerable and witnessed consistent, unpredictable anger directed at me while my brain was forming.
What I need now is to learn to be an amygdala whisperer. I need to find and cultivate my own anger, and learn not to be afraid of it, so it can counter and calm my state of anxiety.
Oh, and to the mom out there, I know you’re not a bad person and likely have all sorts of issues you’re struggling with, but know that your actions are shaping that little one’s brain right now, which will go on to shape the brains of her children, and the next generation etc.
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