How do we find calm in a storm?

As we all spend a lot of time in close quarters with a few select people in our homes — spouse, children, family, roommates — emotions may get the best of us over the next few weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown. Arguments are going to erupt. Tempers are going to flare. Now more than ever is the time for us to be aware of our emotions and how we need to navigate them carefully and not carelessly in order to preserve our relationships with others and ourselves and keep our sanity as we spend more hours together in one small space than we may have ever done in our lifetime.

One master of explaining this process of handling our emotions is author Brene Brown.

I’m listening to Brene Brown’s book, “Dare To Lead.” This book is about more than just leading others. Like all of Brene’s work, it’s about understanding, acknowledging and managing our own emotions to achieve more success in our work and relationships.

I am in the chapter where she talks about calm. I have made it my mission to help mothers bring more calm to their life, especially when they feel like life can be so chaotic with young kids. This is something I had to learn the hard way, and that’s why I want to share some of my mistakes to help others avoid the same pitfalls.

I always perceived calm as a weakness for much of my life. I consider myself a high-energy person who gets a lot done. Calm people to me conjured up images of stoners who didn’t care about much and just wanted to chill out. Fine for some people, not for me and my family.

When I was in the middle of the most frantic years of mothering, my husband constantly complained that our pace of life was too stressful and overwhelming for him. He’s a calm guy. He’s the yang to my yin. He thought the daily frenzy of activity I led my family through like a rat in a maze was detrimental to our children and our happiness. I never felt tired and always wanted to do more if it was “productive” and “enriching” and “worthwhile,” and my kids seemed to mirror my enthusiasm. I told him to just go along for the ride, and I would worry about all the logistics. How stressful could that be?

Unfortunately, when life threw us some curve balls, and I suddenly felt fearful we could lose our home and security in life if I didn’t start and grow and manage a business and our finances, I became way beyond stressed and overwhelmed. At that point, when I felt like I was drowning in demands I had put on myself, I longed for the calm of a raft to climb on and rest a while. No such raft drifted along. I had to build it myself.

The process of learning to not only relish the calm but actively work to attract it is something I have been working on for the past several years. It’s authors like Hal Elrod and Greg McKeown and Simon Sinek that are helping me in this journey.

Now I interview other moms who face similar challenges that I once did when I felt like successfully handling work and kids and everything else in life was the biggest mountain I ever had to climb. Some of these moms I interview remain mostly calm and face each struggle one day at a time. They don’t blame and judge themselves for every negative predicament their family faces. But many of the moms find themselves stuck in stress overload, as I once did, because they blame themselves for not living up to their own unrealistic standards as a parent and a professional.

So what does this have to do with learning how to handle our emotions in our new 24/7 relationships with our family? It has to do with understanding where our reactions come from, how they affect others and ourselves, and how we can get better control of them.

Brene Brown tells a story of being in a similar place in her life, where she was in over her head and didn’t know how to escape. She felt constantly guilty that she was doing a sloppy job at everything that mattered — her career, her parenting, her life. One day when her husband declared upon opening the door of their frig that “there’s not even any lunch meat in this house,” she lost it.

She was overcome with guilt that she was not able to be the mom who has dinner on the table instead of buried in her work. She didn’t even have a table to serve dinner, because it had been taken over by boxes of her notes and pictures for her latest project. I can SO relate to this, because my inability to keep up with all the self-inflicted demands of my business had years ago caused it to take over every surface, and even much of the floor space, of my house and eventually every crevice of my mind.

Brene did something that she describes as “off-loading” on this particular day — where you are emotionally on edge, ready to burst because you can’t handle the stress, and you lash out at someone who pushes your buttons, usually without intending to and usually someone close to you.

I always described this as “expressing” my feelings for the first few decades of my life. I perceived this as healthy. I grew up in an Italian household that was loud and full of passion. You never had to wonder how anyone felt. We all expressed it, all the time, happy or mad, angry or frustrated, disappointed or livid. Did I mention ranting and raving? I had friends whose families never discussed their emotions. They seemed “calm.” But I never trusted those calm families, because even as a child, I knew no one’s family could be perfect. (Unless they were the Brady Bunch.) I knew there was probably some resentment or distrust or envy percolating under the surface. I always felt for years that emotional avoidance was more dangerous than emotional outbursts, especially for the person’s mental and physical health who was not expressing their feelings.

Turns out, according to Brene Brown’s book, I’m right. Those people or organizations that don’t confront emotions are stuffing them down and hiding them. And those emotions don’t go away. They fester, and they cause major problems in the future. Brene talks about these kinds of people having a lot of difficulties in mid-life after decades of denying negative emotions to themselves or others.

But priding myself on sharing my emotions by lashing out at my loved ones on a regular basis — that’s not healthy either. It’s horrible to do to the other person, and I never fully realized it until a long-term relationship with a calm guy. My husband had to tell me for years how my outbursts crushed him before I was able to admit to myself that expressing my feelings and caring about someone else’s feelings are not mutually exclusive.

When I would lose my temper and rage at him, he would either try to walk away (which was hard because I would follow) or take in my negativity and feel bad all day. He can  still be in a world of hurt hours later, long after I’ve even forgotten that I was mad. I’ve learned that it’s critical to understand the sensitivities of others when expressing our own emotions. It doesn’t mean you don’t share what you’re feeling, but doing it in a way where it comes shooting out like verbal vomit is just as disturbing (or more) to the recipient as it would be to feel it physically landing on their body.

In her book “Dare To Lead,” Brene Brown says the “off-loading” technique that I learned in my childhood can be just as negative as the “stuffing down” default mechanism I have criticized. I realized this when my husband made me aware of how much it negatively impacted him when I expressed my emotions that way, and it become much more clear to me when I started to see my kids using this technique. That’s when I took steps to try to rein it in and find other ways to express how I’m feeling and how to resolve a situation without exploding.

But it is very difficult to banish old habits completely. For me, my angry outbursts  happen less frequently, and are usually shorter in duration and less intense, than they used to be. My kids used to complain that I yelled a lot. They don’t complain about that any more.

But I still have a hard time controlling my anger in certain circumstances, and it comes  out with a vengeance when I deal with customer service that doesn’t meet my expectations.

Today I started my day perfectly happy and ready to begin my morning meditation when I saw an email from Hootsuite informing me I had been charged $348. I signed up for one of those free trials, where you get to try the software for a short time if you give them a credit card first, but they won’t charge you if you cancel during the trial. After a week or two of using the tool, I didn’t like it. So I made a point of going in, cancelling the paid version, and downgrading to the free version. I had even put on my calendar the day the free trial ended to be sure I wouldn’t be charged. So I was shocked and appalled that I was still charged though I went through all these steps to cancel. When I called to get a refund, I couldn’t get anyone on the phone. That’s when my anger escalated, and my old habits reared their ugly head.

My day had suddenly turned from pleasant to angry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how this company had deceived me and who knows how many other customers who took the time to cancel the paid option and still got charged. Each time I attempted to contact someone to get a refund, I got more and more angry that I couldn’t get an answer. I tried nine different times — phone call, website contact form, chat, emails, Twitter, Facebook. I finally got an email response that they normally don’t refund anything but would look into it in my case.

At that point, I had not directed any of the anger at my family. I knew I had to let it go, but that is so hard for a person who has spent decades off-loading emotions. I tried meditating. For a couple minutes, I was calm. When I was done, I was still angry.

I wasn’t as enraged — mostly because I had at least gotten a response — but I was still very annoyed and dissatisfied that they couldn’t just admit their mistake and give me the refund. Why do I let these little irritations get under my skin so much? It’s just one of those things that pushes my buttons. I learned from Brene that it has to do with the story I am telling myself, a false story. And that is something we can control.

We can control what we tell ourselves. We can’t control what life throws at us. We can’t control what others say and do. But we can control our reactions, and we can take responsibility for our own emotions and be aware of how they are swirling around in our head to create a narrative.

And we can admit to the person who is the target of our anger what story we are telling ourselves, even if it is a fictional story. In Brene’s case, the story she was telling herself was that she was a crappy mother because dinner wasn’t on the table when her husband came home. He reminded her that she never had dinner on the table when he came home; they always made it together. He reminded her that he did the grocery shopping, so a lack of lunch meat did not reflect poorly on her as a mother or a homemaker.

In my case, the story I was telling myself was that every company is trying to rip off the little guy like me, and I should never trust any company because I will end up in these annoying situations that suck up my time and energy and create a financial mess. Of course, that isn’t true either. There are some people who like the company, or it wouldn’t be successful. I didn’t need to contact the company nine times to get a refund. I could have left a message, and if they didn’t respond in a day, I could have tried again. But it’s hard for an off-loader to let go.

So be aware of the story you are telling yourself when your emotions explode like a volcano. Admit when you’ve told yourself something that made you feel bad about yourself or others that really isn’t true. And then find a way to express your feelings without yelling and losing your temper. It’s not easy for some of us, but after the uncomfortable discussion about why we’re unhappy, you might just be able to relax and find some calm. And amid the chaos of 24/7 kids in the era of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, we can all welcome a little escape.

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