I yelled at a 90-year-old. But wait...it gets worse. (Then better.)
Twice in my adult life I can recall losing my temper, Jen, or perhaps more aptly “losing my shit.” Both times, my normal state of levelheaded thinking and kindness gave way to such a fierce intensity that it shocked the people around me, as well as myself. The first time occurred several years ago around a campfire, when a conversation about female athletes’ developing bodies was making a young girl uncomfortable. When her request for a change of topic was brushed aside by two grown men, I lost my temper. And perhaps, considering the situation, it was warranted. The second time occurred more recently at a family dinner, when two of the guests began having a conversation about the decisions of a teen girl at the table. I could tell she was feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable in the public space of the restaurant, especially as the conversation became more personal. The power difference between the young teen and the older man who was driving most of the conversation couldn’t have been more stark. As I watched her growing discomfort, something about the scene triggered a swift and intense reaction in me. Not to mention loud. In the middle of a five-star formal dining establishment in New York City, I slammed my hands down on the table and yelled, “Shut the f*ck up!” directly at the 90-year-old man sitting across from me. I’m still relieved I didn’t give the old man a heart attack. The reality is we all could have done better in this situation. The man who initiated the conversation loves this teen dearly and would never knowingly hurt or humiliate her, but at that moment he was inadvertently doing both of those things. As for me, losing my shit the way I did is not ultimately how I'd prefer to handle these situations. There are so many reasons this meltdown shouldn’t have happened. The conversation shouldn't have been started in the first place; other people could have stepped in to help redirect; there were a thousand less upsetting ways I could have gotten my point across. But here's the thing: it did happen. I lost my shit, big time. This is real life, folks, and I'm living it. One of the things I love to do in my work is help normalize both the messiness of life and the healing journey through it. (Full disclosure, the latter can be equally messy.) And one way I do this is by sharing real-life reflections about my own life and my own journey. I can't tell you how many times I have sat with individuals who hesitate to share a painful or challenging experience or feeling because they are sure they are the only one who acts this way, the only one who feels these things. There's something healing when we understand that we aren't alone, that the path towards self-discovery, healing, and growth is messy for everyone. What happened for me as I sat at that dinner table in New York, watching this teenager being browbeaten over how to live her own life, was that I remembered my experience of being pushed into a box, over and over again, in my own life. I remembered what it felt like to be unable to breathe, for my voice not to be heard and my views to be discarded, what it felt like to be told what was and wasn't acceptable. And I lost it — despite all the work I have done, despite all the real healing I've come to know around this very topic. Again, it is both life itself and the healing journey that are messy. Neither comes nicely packaged with orderly, clear, step-by-step directions and a bow on top. So the incident at the restaurant was messy — but because of the work I’ve done, the story didn’t stop there. It was what occurred afterwards, in my own thoughts and reactions, that really captured my curiosity. If I had blown up this way earlier in my life, I would have fallen into a deep shame spiral afterward. My inner critic would have beaten me up; the negative thoughts about myself, the conviction that something was wrong with me and that I deserved the shame I felt for my behavior, would have echoed in my mind for weeks, if not months. But that didn't happen this time. In the days that followed my outburst, I was able to withdraw from the situation, pause, and reassess. As I caught my breath, I noticed a sense of growing self-compassion and curiosity. I was able to approach the situation with humility and interest, without a need to prove anything. I gained clarity around what had happened and why, and an understanding of what was mine to own and, perhaps more importantly, what was not. I made a decision: I would own what was mine to own in this situation. And I was also going to celebrate what was mine to celebrate. The owning, for me, included sitting with the individuals involved, hearing their side, offering apologies where needed, and genuinely working to repair the rupture my outburst caused in the relationships. I kept the interactions light, for both myself and those directly involved. I made myself vulnerable, with a clear understanding of what level of vulnerability to offer to whom. Never before in my life could I have processed a shame cycle so quickly. But I did. And it felt good! The celebrating was noticing that there is no box anymore. There is space to breathe. And there is life now. Imperfect, messy, beautiful life … and I’m living it (albeit sometimes loudly!) Because that wasn't always the case for me, the growing awareness of my "aliveness" offers immense hope to me as I continue on this journey. So, Jen, as you settle into the new year, my hope is that you’ll embrace the beauty and the messiness of this journey with me. That you’ll grow in your capacity to own what is yours to own, and also to celebrate what is yours to celebrate!
We’re in this together,