I know its happened to you. Well, unless you never drive a car or you live in a place where there is no traffic at all. You are in a line of cars traveling the same direction and one of the cars way ahead of you, perhaps a half a mile or more ahead suddenly slows or stops and then all the cars behind them suddenly slow way down or stop. All along the line of cars, brake lights flash, tires squeal, and tempers flare up. This exact thing happened to me just the other day as I was sitting in traffic, a car somewhere about 15-20 cars ahead stopped for some unseen reason, and all the cars between us did the same, then me and my rather large truck also came rather suddenly to a stop.
I relaxed a bit as I realized that I had enough room to stop without hitting the guy in front of me and then looked in me rear-view mirror to make sure I would not get rear-ended myself. Then I noticed something kind of surprising, the guy in the car behind me was angry, and he was yelling at me, waving his fists and flipping me the finger with gust and you know what, I started to get mad myself. How dare he get mad at me, I did not start this chain reaction, it was not my idea to stop traffic in the middle of the freeway, I was just reacting to the cars in the line ahead of me.
As I sat in my truck and listened to the guy behind me honk his horn and yell, I began to think about how like many of our relationships this traffic jam was. We spend nearly all of our time reacting to the other persons reactions and never actually get down to the real cause of the reactions in the first place. I was reacting to the driver behind me getting angry, he was reacting to my suddenly stopping, while my sudden stop was a reaction to the cars in front of me reacting to the cars in front of them. So how is this like a relationship again?
Think about it, have you ever been engaged in a conversation with someone, the conversation is moving along rather smoothly, then you say something and the other person reacts in a way that is completely out of proportion with what you said? Did the misunderstand what you were saying? Often we assume that there is a misunderstanding and so we attempt to make our statement more clear, this generally escalates the reaction of the other person and in most cases causes anger or frustration on our part. What if the other person's reaction is not a misunderstanding at all, but instead something completely different. If we could identify the cause of that reaction, might we be able to address this rather than reacting to reactions and perpetuating the cycle of anger and misunderstanding?
The first thing we need to do is understand what this disproportionate reaction is telling us, and to do that we have to look at a little bit of psychology, particularly the psychology of traumatic events. When a person has a traumatic or major negative experience in their life, the tend to associate certain things with that event, certain sights, sounds, smells, and yes, words. These things become so intimately linked with the traumatic event that any even similar sight, sound, smell or words, become "triggers" that bring up all of the negative emotions and memories to be relived again.
One way that psychologists have of identifying these "triggers" is looking for disproportionate reactions, for example a loud noise might startle a normal person and they may breathe more heavily or shake for a moment but they ordinarily recover relatively quickly once they realize there is no real threat. For someone who loud noises are triggers, the response might include crying or uncontrolled sobbing, or sometimes violent fight or flight responses that are far beyond the range of normal reactions. One other thing to note, is that with each successive negative experience or relived trauma, the triggers tend to become more sensitive and even in many cases more broad. Someone who was once only triggered by the sound of gunshots may over time become sensitive to any sudden loud noise.
Now, lets get back to the conversation that we were observing before. Person A and person B are talking along pretty normally, when person A says something that causes person B to react with anger, Instead of person A assuming that person B misunderstood and needs more explanation, person A recognizes the signs of a trigger reaction and knows that what is happening is most likely a reaction to some deep hurt in the distance. Instead of becoming frustrated or defensive, person A can react with sympathy and understanding. Perhaps Person A can explain that what they said was not intended to hurt person B and depending on the relationship either try to talk about the past experience that has led to this reaction or agree with person B to avoid this particular area of conversation altogether in order to avoid triggering those negative emotions and memories.
So you see, the guy behind me in the traffic jam was angry, but his anger was only triggered by me, it was not really caused by me. He was reacting to a stimulus he may not have even recognized, and I could have reacted back with even more anger and the situation could have escalated, but instead, I just sat and waited for the cars to begin moving again, as we all know they always will, and the situation quieted on its own. In our daily conversations, we have much the same choice. When a person reacts to something we say, we can become defensive or angry in return, or we can recognize that their reaction is the result of some far away trauma and not caused by you at all. We can choose to react in sympathy and understanding and seek to help our friends overcome the traumas of their past or we can add just one more traumatic experience to that list.
This post was part of the May, 2015 Synchroblog - Lets Talk About Anger. Please check out the posts from our other authors by following the links below.
- Mark Votava – Becoming Dreamers Again
- Carol Kuniholm – God’s Economy: Managing Anger Assets
- Clara Ogwuazor Mbamalu – The Easiest Way to Control and Manage Anger
- K.W. Leslie – Anger
- Glenn Hager – The Many Faces of Anger
- Paul Meier – The Value of Anger
- Pastor Fedex – Chain Reaction
- Jeremy Myers – You Sound Angry, Bitter, and Critical
- Michael Boden – Anger is Not a Godly Emotion
- Kathy Escobar – underneath anger.