By Angela Noel Lawson
January 21, 2019
I like to believe I’m an optimistic, self-aware, wholehearted person. And I am. But, not all the time. Sometimes I’m petty, even a little mean. I find I am occasionally nicer to strangers than I am to the people I love most. Such was the case recently. However, because I am those other things as well as an occasional ass, I learned something important from my bad behavior.
A Passive-Aggressive Episode
As we had for the past few weekends, Paul (my husband) and I gathered our ski equipment, water, extra socks etc. for a day on the slopes near our home in Minnesota.
On this particular weekend, something was bugging me. Whether it was an aching shoulder, a phrase I couldn’t get right on an essay I’m working on, a challenge at work, or a general sense of malaise, I don’t know. Could be all of them or none of them. All I can really tell you is I had a psychological splinter with no relief in sight.
We packed up the car and headed to Starbucks, our normal routine for the last few weeks prior to our ski day. On this day we’d be picking up Jackson from a sleep-over on our way to the slopes. Inside the restaurant, Paul ordered his coffee and breakfast sandwich. I followed with an order for Jackson and myself. Paul’s arrived first and he headed back out to the car to eat and keep the heat on while I waited for the rest of our food and drinks. When the coffee and hot chocolate arrived, I found myself with two beverages and two sandwiches–an unwieldy combination.
Of course, there were a million ways to manage this differently than I did. For example, I could have grabbed a drink carrier. Or I could have stuffed the sandwiches in my coat pocket. Instead, I grasped both drinks and the sandwiches in my hands. When I got to the car, I could feel my irritation boil. Trying to get into the car with my hands full and in the cold made my psychological splinter feel like a two-by-four.
Great, I thought. He’s not even helping me open the door. I guess I have to do everything myself. I balanced the two drinks, one on top of the other, resting my chin on them to try and keep from spilling. Then I used my other hand, still holding the bags with sandwiches, to open the door.
“No,” I said sarcastically the moment I’d opened the door. “I’ve got it. Don’t worry about me.”
Paul looked at me, his sandwich still half-eaten. He didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “You know,” he finally replied, moving the car into gear, “You’d never have said something like that when we were a year into our relationship.”
His words stung. I mumbled something about “just joking.” I shifted in my seat, and reminded myself that this outing was supposed to be a fun family day. I resolved to let the moment pass, and to find a way to manage the splinter without resorting to passive aggressiveness.
My Ego Wages War
Soon, we had Jackson in the car and were on our way to the ski hill. Paul, didn’t hold my sarcasm against me. He responded in friendly tones to my attempts at conversation during the forty-minute journey. But the pall I’d created still hung in the air. Inside my brain a war raged.
I didn’t want to apologize. I felt like I shouldn’t have to. He should have helped me, I reasoned. I was right to feel put out. We were over it now, the moment could just pass and nothing more need be said about it. But by invoking the memory of our courtship, Paul had triggered something in me.
The truth is, I wouldn’t have said that to him a year into our relationship. I didn’t hold him to unreasonable standards then. I didn’t take out frustrations on him. We, like many dating couples, were often the best versions of ourselves in each other’s company. He would have helped me manage too many things in my hands then, and he would have helped me now if he’d seen me struggling. But instead of recognizing this, I assumed two dumb things: 1) he was deliberately not helping me and 2) my psychological splinter was somehow his problem too.
As I sat in the car, a few minutes from our destination, I considered my options. I could just let it go. Paul wasn’t mad. Disappointed maybe, but not mad. Or, I could own it. I could apologize.
As I weighed these options I must confess how very much my ego rebelled against apologizing. I’d behaved badly. But somehow the fact that I knew I’d behaved badly put my ego in self-protective overdrive. I felt shame over my behavior, and vulnerable because of that shame. Apologizing felt like a knife in my ego’s soft underbelly.
But I did it anyway. Up until the moment when the words “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” came out of my mouth, I wasn’t sure I would say them. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous that I struggled so much to find voice to these words. I was surprised too, given how much I think of myself as courageous and intuitive in tough emotional situations. But, there it is: I can be petty and a little bit mean.
Needless to say, Paul appreciated my apology. The psychological air cleared and I pocketed a few valuable insight nuggets.
First among these is the reminder not to treat my partner like a punching bag. Taking out a bad mood on him, or anyone, isn’t fair. Our partners and children, as the closest beings to us, can easily become collateral damage during times of stress. While they are meant to be the ones we can be most ourselves with, they are also the ones we should most want to be the best version of ourselves for.
Second, I must treat my ego with kindness. This might sound strange. My poor ego got all riled up. It wanted to protect me at all costs and gave me all kinds of excuses for why I didn’t need to do the thing I knew I needed to do.
It, like a stubborn child, has the power to derail the best of intentions. It’s also burdened with fear. My ego wants control and power mostly to protect me and ensure my survival. It doesn’t know that its single-minded purpose, robs it of connection and love. It storms because that’s all it knows how to do. But the better part of me can see it for what it is and ride out the tempest. Then, the better part of me can choose to do the right thing, the wholehearted thing, that affirms love and honors relationships.
Finally, I’d like to be able to tell you I pinned down the reason why I was irritated in the first place. But, I can’t. It could be any one of a million different things that accompany daily life. We are constantly confronted with psychological splinters that threaten to derail us and our relationships. Sometimes they’re easy to pluck out once we know they’re there. But, other times we have to just trust the process. In either case, I shouldn’t let something so small effect the things, and the people, that matter most. I shouldn’t, but inevitably, I will.
Brené Brown, well-known New York Times bestselling author and shame researcher says, “I believe you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck.” It sucks to be wrong. It sucks to want to be an optimistic, self-aware, wholehearted person but to watch yourself being an ass instead. However, to keep learning, and more importantly, to keep loving myself and others, I have to do more than excuse my bad behavior. I have to say the words and do the hard thing. That’s the only way I’ll be the person I already think I am.
Your turn: Have you ever fought with your ego? Who won?