A few months ago my wife and I were trying to get our 2.5 year old and 9 month old out the door (parents know this joy). My wife said something pretty benign to me and I snapped something back at her. I do my best to always be calm in my responses, but this time I heard myself speaking in a way that’s really not like me; my tone was surprisingly jerkish. Fortunately, my wife didn’t seem to notice as she was distracted dealing with screaming kids, but while I chased the 2.5 year old with a coat in my hands, I asked myself, “Am I angry at my wife for something she’s done or am I just grouchy?” And the answer was… grouchy. Part of me wanted to be able to blame her for my rudeness like it was somehow deserved, but that was totally on me. Even if it was deserved because she had been rude first, do I really have a right to be rude back? If I’m rude to her, I may tell myself she deserves it, but that doesn’t make me a very nice person. If we’re only nice to people who are nice to us, we’re not nice people; we just mirror what’s given. It pretty much makes us a blah person – not really good and not really bad. Good people try to be nice even when the other person doesn’t treat them very well, and bad people just do whatever they feel without any sense of self control.
From my experience, many people would’ve made up a reason to blame the other person or claim to be overwhelmed to explain their grouchiness and downplay their responsibility for being rude. I knew a woman who was constantly angry at her husband because he didn’t do the dishes before she got home from work. Why didn’t he do the dishes? Because he was tending to the kids. Because she was so upset about it, he managed to do the dishes before she got home for a week, and she was still angry at him, which proved that wasn’t why she was so upset – feelings can be liars. Turns out she was just upset and that was a convenient excuse. And what was the real reason she was upset? She was worn thin and using her husband as an excuse to not address that she was doing too much. It wasn’t her husband’s fault even though she originally wanted it to be because that made the problem outside of herself and not something she had to fix. One of my favourite moments as a therapist follows this set up: (female client in grouchy tone) “Why is [man] not talking to me?” (me) “The stereotype is a lot of men are afraid of talking to women.” (female client in grouchier tone) “Why would he be afraid of me?” (me) “Um…”
The truth is people are fickle. We’re delicate, and we need to accept this instead of looking to blame other people for what our problem is. When it comes to anger, anger is our body’s way of protecting itself and sometimes our anger gear kicks in quicker than others because of what’s going on from things like the time of year to being overwhelmed with thoughts or noise. My favourite lesson for this came from a weekend prenatal class I took with my wife three years ago. That’s right, three Masters Degrees and the best lesson I’ve learned for this came in a weekend course that wasn’t about anger. When a baby cries, it’s their way of communicating something. Parents aren’t supposed to take crying personally, and I’m great at this… but the screeching noise will drive me nuts: “Why didn’t God give kids a mute button?” I don’t take their crying personally, but it can really get under my skin and patience evaporates very quickly if I’m not careful. When a parent hears a baby crying we should check in our head, “Is the baby hungry, tired, in pain (e.g. teething or gassy), or do they need a distraction or a hug?” This is the same list we should be using when we or someone we know is upset: “Am I hungry, tired, in pain, or do I need a distraction or hug?” Sometimes with grownups we need to add, “Do they need space?” especially when dealing with men because quite often we just need a moment to ourselves to be back to normal.
For my situation with my wife, I would say my grouchiness came out of feeling overwhelmed by the crying, which falls in the “in pain” category. It’s not an excuse, but it is likely what led me to being snappy. Crying and screaming has a way of making me irritable. I think it makes a lot of people irritable, which is why having kids can be so trying for couples. Your patience is worn thin by the kids crying so you end up with less patience for each other, which leads to more snappiness and then less patience, and so on. In this situation, whether I was snappy because of the kids or not, I still needed to have better self control and I needed to apologize to my wife for my tone. The good thing is I’m not crazy for being grouchy. I simply fell into the trap of – for a lack of a better phrase – being a baby.
This week may you consider how you can take responsibility for your own behavior.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)