I don’t need to tell you that people can absolutely change in a second when put under extreme anxious pressure – I’m sure you can remember your own experiences of this. Decent people can do incredibly bad things when their fear levels reach certain heights and protective mechanisms kick in. Here’s why…
Do you already have a memory in mind of when this has happened?
The person’s awareness seems to suddenly narrow, to the point that they forget certain agreements, facts or memories:
That there’s a babysleeping in the next room.
That the neighbors could be listening to everything right about now.
That they promised to “take a step back and breathe” next time they got angry.
Maybe even that its your birthday.
Within that blind spot can also fall the obvious consequences of actions, as if everything exists only in those few moments of automatic, impulsive response:
Broken furniture or plates! I know a guy whose house is riddled with holes in the walls, from angry impulsive punches.
Walking out of a relationship that was actually good.
Walking out of a job that was beneficial in more ways that one.
Damaging relationships with good people who will now think you’re unhinged (even if they’ve done similar at times).
At the less extreme end, even the smallest of behaviours, decisions and tendencies of people can seem maddeningly ridiculous.
When you try to reason against them, even with a clearly better alternative, have you noticed how they respond with absolute nonsense by way of justification?
Try to contest it further and you may soon hit against a wall of defensive anger. At this point, if the person is not well known to you, it’s easy to just think a few disparaging thoughts and take refuge in the knowledge that you, of course, know better.
When it’s someone closer, or someone you love, you might be familiar with that feeling of “what is going on here? Is he insane? Are we all broken machines, doing and saying bat-shit crazy things that make no sense?” Which is a little harder to shake.
Worse still, is when you find yourself hearing the same confused disbelief from someone about your actions, and feel that horrible sense of being trapped, watching your nonsensical defensive responses predictably roll out as if they’re being made on your behalf.
Heck, I’m no exception to this thing. I’ve had rows started from a position of anxiety, where I’ve been ranting and raving, spewing out all sorts of nonsense until I run out of mental energy. Then I’m left with vague embarrassing memories of saying stupid things like “because you made me angry!” “I don’t care how you feel!” “What’s that got to do with me?” “I don’t care any more!” Suddenly it all seems ridiculous, enough to even laugh at. But underneath that calm comedown after a silly row, there’s that weird feeling of shame still lingering. “Holy shit, I might be in the wrong here – did I really listen properly, or was I consumed with being ‘right’?” Defensiveness kicks in with “That wasn’t really me… I don’t know what came over me…” which still implies that you’re out of control in some way.
Its really not a pleasant feeling.
There’s obviously nothing macho, tough or manly about flying into a rage. Its an absolute lack of control which eats away for a long time afterwards. Its really a huge feeling of vulnerability.
Which is exactly what shame is.
But there’s a damn good reason for why this mechanism unfolds in the way that it does, and you can read more about it here.
With greater awareness of how all of this shame stuff works, you’ll learn a few “truths” to keep in mind whilst watching a display of anxiety from someone. If you’re able to stop your own frustration or retaliatory anger, then you’ll certainly be a stronger position of control with less likelihood of regret later on. You’ll also understand the best way to help an anxious person (and it doesn’t involve shouting or punishing via distancing).
If you want to add anything to this article, any thoughts, experiences of observations of your own, feel free! There’s space to do so just below.