Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
I'm 34 and too old to be getting into punch-ups. But that’s almost where I found myself last week on vacation in the Dominican Republic.
Thirty of us flew there to celebrate a friend’s wedding at an all-inclusive resort. On Thursday we headed to a foam party where a massive pool was packed to the gills. We’d brought along a few giant inflatable pool toys, because it's not a pool party without at least one. Not seeing the predictable outcome, I tossed our flamingo into the pool where immediately seventeen kids tried to get onto it at once.
No problem, I thought, let them have fun. Not long after that, two middle-aged women got it into their head that they would tip off all the kids and steal our beloved pool buddy for themselves. I became concerned when one of these overly made-up harpies started to flail the thing around with her razor-sharp acrylic claws digging into its sides.
“You might want to be careful,” I suggested. She responded by giving me the finger and trying to balance her and her friend’s enormous posteriors on our pink floatie. She had clearly abused her all-inclusive pool bar privileges and was not in her right mind.
We let them enjoy their drunken moment of glory for a time but after a while my fiancée and our friend, the new bride, went to retrieve the flamingo. These women refused to give it up, flashing more crude gestures. The bride managed to snap it up a moment later, but harpy #2 then went after our girls and started wrestling them for it.
My protective instincts kicked in and I flew out of the pool to put a stop to this. I couldn’t believe the appalling behaviour of these women, so with my hands on the offender’s shoulders (in hindsight, grabbing any stranger is not cool) I began to lecture her about ownership of property, and before I could move on to cruelty to children, I was being shoved by the bearded husband, and surrounded by a gang of his drunken friends. Attempts at conversation were futile.
As I handed off my sunglasses to prepare to gratify my ego, thankfully cooler individuals on both sides stepped between us and I realized that I had let my emotions take control of my actions. For someone who rarely gets mad, the loss of control felt awful.
Feeling a compelling urge to protect your lover and your friend from a perceived attack – even to kill for them in extreme circumstances – is born into most animals including humans.
We are hard-wired over millions of years of evolution for this. Sensory nerve cells communicate the threat to the hypothalamus. Hypothalamus signals the pituitary and adrenal glands to release chemicals into the bloodstream. The flow of epinephrine in turn produces cortisol. Blood pressure increases and glucose is released to provide more energy. A throng of neurotransmitters spring into action, scrambling our higher brain functions (yes, that's the scientific terminology).
Humans may be animals, but we are not at the mercy of our primordial brain. The flight or fight response is highly developed but our rational mind is even more so. We don’t need to let emotion control our actions.
In a moment I could have escalated the conflict and ended up in a Dominican jail, kicked out of the resort, or worse, someone could have been hurt or even killed. Over what, a flamingo?
Negative emotions can serve us but they can also ruin our lives if we lead with them.
I’m not proud to have put myself in that situation in the first place, but I am thankful that I exercised just enough control over my emotions. Later, I returned to the opposing group with my palms out, and I apologized for my part in the dust up. “It was a misunderstanding, and I’m sorry,” I said.
Now in control, I kept my breathing calm and my voice measured despite the obvious anger anger and barbs from the other guys, and claw-handed woman snarling at me in the background. I went into that second interaction thinking, why let a stranger’s emotional state influence mine? We shook hands and moved on with our lives.
How do we avoid emotional boil-over?
My mother the teacher put it best: think before you act. It’s what she taught all of 'her' children in her years of teaching and I have no doubt it’s saved many of them much of the heartache that comes with acting on autopilot.
When we take a moment, even a split second, we can decide whether to allow our emotion or our consciousness to control our actions.
A mentor of mine explained it this way:
“We cannot witness an emotion and be possessed by it at the same time.”
What a powerful notion. Think about this for a minute.
What if we were to watch our anger develop before using it to verbally attack our partner? What if we were to witness our grief at losing a loved one before we bottle it up and let it poison us for ten years? What if we were to see our hatred toward someone who has wronged us, and use that awareness to forgive that person, freeing us from that devastating emotion?
In that moment of pause between emotion and action we could redefine our lives. We could save ourselves decades of anger/bitterness/fear/sadness/worry.
For reasons not worth getting into I had a panic attack on this same vacation. I haven’t had one in ten years, but this time I practiced witnessing the panic. I left the group to find a quiet space and I just watched the panic grip me, my heart hammering the walls of my chest for the better part of an hour. I simply witnessed. I didn’t let the panic turn to anger that normally I’d direct at the closest unsuspecting person around me.
I've tried to remember what my mother taught me and that has saved me a lot of unnecessary suffering. Today would have been her 64th birthday. Happy birthday, mom. And thank you.
Have an interesting experience with losing control? Let us know in the comments.
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