The Golden Pause
I’m not proud to admit this, but I’ve always been a high-strung, short-tempered, easily-irritated person, particularly with my significant others. I probably wouldn’t be admitting it at all except that, after twenty-plus years of struggling with it, of flaming temper tantrums and dark pits of remorse, of self-flagellating and self-loathing, of therapy and self-help groups, of medication, meditation, and introspection, I’ve finally gotten control of the behavior. I know I’m not alone with this problem, so I decided to share my story in the hope of helping others who may be struggling with similar issues.
As do most life-changing awarenesses, it came to me quietly and without fanfare, and it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already heard a thousand times before. But this time, it got in. The circumstances were completely ordinary. I was paging through a book, the title of which I don’t even remember, and I found something about how when we feel upset, we should try to pause before we react.
This is not a revolutionary idea. We are taught from the time we’re little that we should learn to control our tempers. And as I said, I’d been trying to do so for a long, long time with many different techniques that hadn’t worked. Maybe it was the phrasing in the book, or maybe I had just had a blowup so I was open to suggestion, or maybe I was just ready and it would have happened no matter what I was doing. I don’t know. All I know is that from the moment I read that, I’ve been able to pause before reacting almost all the time. And in that pause, I’ve found gold.
That evening, when my partner said something that annoyed me, instead of jumping all over him, I paused. Instead of going outward, I went inward, and I saw that what he’d said wasn’t really a big deal (in fact, his intentions were good, as they almost always were), and that my annoyance was about something else; something inside of me.
Not reacting felt soooo wonderful. I recognized it immediately for the huge thing that it was, as what I’d been trying to get to emotionally my whole life. I felt lifted up, empowered, whole in a way I had never felt before. I wanted more of it, and in that instant, I developed this new habit. It felt as good as getting high for the first time; I knew it would stick. And it has.
But as I paused more and more in my life, as great as it felt to not react, I realized that I was feeling sadder and sadder. I was functioning just fine, feeling pretty good about myself and solidly in control of my reactions, but I was just sad. I didn’t know why. Then one day it hit me: the purpose of my big reactions all these years had been to protect myself from even more unacceptable feelings. Anger pushes down my grief, sadness, and fear, I realized; if I stay irritated and reactive, I don’t have to deal with those other feelings. So when I quit getting angry, sadness, grief and fear began surfacing.
At first this didn’t make sense, because I’d been working through my pain and grief for about two decades, and had made sense out of most of it. But the awareness was so lucid and powerful, and fit so well with what was going on that I knew it was right.
I call these pushed-down feelings my secondary emotions: I push down feelings I don’t want to have and substitute less overwhelming ones. Like most defense mechanisms, I probably learned this technique to protect myself from feelings that weren’t acceptable growing up, which in my family meant pretty much all of them; the only acceptable emotion was anger, and the only way to handle that anger was ragefully: yelling, swearing, and blaming. (Please understand that I do not say this to portray myself as a victim or to blame my parents for my problems. My issues are my own to deal with and work through. But there is no doubt in my mind that many of them are rooted in my childhood growing up with two very unhappy alcoholic parents.)
Anyway, it seemed that normal, everyday connecting with people evoked residual sadness and fear buried deep inside of me. I had come so far in being able to have genuine connections with people, but I had worked mostly on the big stuff: love, honesty, and trust. Critical, yes, and a darn good start. But I’d missed a big piece of the puzzle. It had never occurred to me to look at simple, everyday interacting (you know: what do you want for dinner? How was your day? We need to go grocery shopping) as a source of anxiety. But it makes sense that it would be, historically, because it was always innocuous things that caused the hugest blowups in my family. Running out of my father’s favorite salad dressing or the phone ringing too late could result in hours of haranguing, swearing, and name-calling. For eighteen years, I lived with the anxiety of never knowing if something I did would set my father off: it makes perfect sense that the mundane interactions of life would be a trigger for me.
It seems that I was aiming too high in my recovery, that I’d overlooked this simple little thing, and in doing so, I felt so stuck in that awful, reactive behavior. So there are a couple of lessons here. One is about reactivity and secondary emotions: if you’re able to pause and look inward instead of react, you might figure something out, potentially something that could change your life like my awareness did for me. The other lesson is that there is so much to be reaped from everyday life. Not just in terms of personal growth and coming to terms with our demons (although that is certainly awesome when it happens), but in appreciating every moment of our lives, big and small, for the potential gold it contains. Because it’s there; you just have to know where to look.
I’m not saying I’m cured. Like anybody, I get irritated and I get annoyed, and I still have to hold my tongue on a regular basis. But being aware of what’s going on at a deeper level was a tremendous leap forward; the instant reactivity is gone. I’m much better at knowing what’s my stuff and what isn’t and drawing those boundaries respectfully. And becase I’m doing that better, I feel better about myself, more confident, more relaxed than I ever have around other people. The sadness subsided, too; ironically, I think a lot of it had more to do with my shame about being reactive (when I should “know better”) than it did with old grief (although it’s all closely related). So there is a third lesson: through this process, I found a deeper level of forgiveness and compassion for myself. Whenever this happens, as I’ve so often written, the world becomes a kinder place.
Finally, I’d just like to say that it’s scary to put myself out there like this. I would much rather write about growth from an intellectual standpoint than a personal one because I don’t feel nearly as exposed that way. But this experience was really huge for me. I think the idea of secondary emotions is probably not original. I’ve probably read about it over the years and the idea was hanging around in the back forty of my mind. But intellectual understanding is so very, very different from emotional experience. It’s like the difference between a speed bump and a mountain in terms of growth. So if sharing my experience helps anybody in figuring out their own, it’s well worth it to me.
So pause when you’re having a big reaction that doesn’t feel good. Simply pause. Then look inward. If you can stay with the process, there’s gold to be found.
Categorised as: Power/Empowerment