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?
21 thoughts on “Bad Behavior’s Brighter Side: A Lesson I Learned about Love”
You are not alone in this. This happens with me and my hubby more times than I’d like to admit – particularly if one of us is tired stressed or hungry. We should all try to be a little kinder to ourselves and to our partners.
It does seem like politeness goes out the window when stress arrives. I think that’s one of the reasons I added “5 belly breaths” to my daily goals. I’m hoping that gives me just a little extra space to consider my behavior before I act out.
We definitely cannot be kinder to others if we aren’t kind to ourselves too. Thanks for reading and letting me know I’m not alone. 🙂
Mate. I nodded along to this whole post. The amount of times I’ve taken my frustrations out on Andrew is inexcusable. The amount of times I’ve been frustrated and I have no idea why is puzzling. I too need to keep my ego in check and sometimes I do manage to mumble those two very important words “I’m sorry”. I also think of reasons to blame Andrew for my bad mood/frustrations. It’s quite cruel that the people who deserve the best of you quite often experience the worst of you. I like to think that most of the time I’m a nice & kind wife & mother, but I know I can always do better. Thank you for yet another inspiring post, Angela.
Why is “I’m sorry” so hard sometimes! I can say it in the dumbest of circumstances like “I’m sorry I have a different opinion…” But, when I am and should be sorry for bad behavior it’s like I get tongue tied! I’d love to make it a life goal to reduce my own psychological pain and fear of admitting my faults in these situations and making amends. I easily admit stupidity and laugh at myself sometimes, but when I’m ashamed of myself it’s the hardest ever to make it right. I want to use this knowledge to make it easier for people to apologize to me when necessary…if I know they’re struggling with shame, I wonder how I could make it easier for them? So much to think about. Thank you for reading and sharing and thinking and being the kind and nice person that you are.
So true!!! I love the “psychological splinter.” Ego/pride can get the best of me in the worst way. The need to be “right” has put me into some difficult spots. Self awareness doesn’t stop us from being human. Unless, you’re a Buddhist monk or contemplative. Still human but unworldly. The rest of us just need to be conscious of our mistakes, put ego aside, and apologize. Even when we don’t feel that we’ve done something “wrong”, saying I’m sorry really lightens the bruised air. Splinters fester if they are not removed. So do thoughtless, impulsive comments. In my marriage I feel that I apologize a lot more than my husband. I used to resent it because “I’m sorry” just isn’t a part of my husband’s lexicon. (Rather like the Fonz from Happy Days.) But now I have come to realize that putting my ego aside and accepting this reality makes for a much smoother relationship. Now, if I could just contain my impulsive reactions, my world would be a more peaceful place. Let us all learn from our bad behaviors and embrace change.
It is hard when it feels like there’s an unequal amount of awareness on the need for an apology front. It’s easy to keep score–too easy!
Interesting that you mention Buddhism. I’ve been reading a book on it and one of the things it talks about is how changing oneself has the effect of changing the environment around ourselves, even if no one else does. I had a therapist who said something similar. If one of us changes, the relationship between two of us changes–and hopefully for the better.
Our egos are such powerful things, aren’t they. Meant to protect us, they sometimes do just the opposite. I need my ego to get up in the morning–it’s what tells me, “Yes, you can make a difference today–you’re awesome!” But it’s also the voice that says, “You’re awesome!” Even when I’m not. 🙂
I love that you own up to these moments, and then share them for us all to read, understand, and know that we’re not along. We all have had these moments, whether or not we like to own up to them or not. I have to admit, your post had me smiling, but it’s because I get it, and I’ve been there. I have those “psychological splinter” days, and now I usually own up to my mood right away. I’m not sure why I do this. Maybe it’s a warning to my kids and husband, maybe it’s an early apology – I don’t know. But, I do know that if they know I’m in a bad mood, they often allow me a little uninterrupted quiet time, and maybe that’s all I need.
Love this honest, open, informative post of yours – you’re not alone. 🙂
It is good to own up to a bad mood right away! I try and do the same, though I worry sometimes that I could be using it as an excuse instead of trying to address the root cause. In general though, I think being honest with ourselves and our families about where we’re at at a particular moment AND not wallowing in it is just about the best way we can be. I think you’re a great model for your kids on this. As we so often hear, kids won’t listen as much to what we say, as they do to who we are. And being honest about your state of mind shows them it’s okay to feel a particular way, but it’s not okay to unwittingly be a jerk as a result.
Thank you for your thoughts, Erin!
Just last week, I went to a seminar on “courage through vulnerability.” There was a Brene Brown quote on every slide. Weird! First, I think it’s says a lot about your relationship that a snappy comment derailed you for so long. I used to work at a busy community center and I’ve seen that in-family communication like that is the norm. When Susan or I snaps like that, we try to find some space to talk as soon as possible. We know from experience that we’re not going to get along again until we clear the air.
I agree, addressing it right away is a great idea. In this case, the space of time was about twenty minutes–so not terribly long. But, the sooner it can be addressed the better.
I think it’s awesome that you both make the commitment to talk it out together and not let it fester. That makes a huge difference, I think.
Curious: have you watched Brene Brown’s TEDtalk?
“Psychological splinters”–perfect description! Didn’t know there was a diagnosis of what I suffer from too often! And “embrace the suck”–a really good remedy, if not easy to swallow. Thanks for this!
Thank you for reading! I’m glad you found something to relate to here. I agree with you, it is tough to “embrace the suck” but it might just be worth it!
Been there, done that, more times than I’d care to admit! It happens when reality doesn’t meet our (often unrealistic) expectations (like expecting our spouse’s to be mind readers). My son called me out on it once, and like you, it stung a lot! He shared how he had resisted the urge to get a dig in on a fellow student, he said, because “I don’t want to be petty like you, mom.” Kids don’t miss a thing! I strive to do better each day 🙂
Oh! Wow–from the mouths of babes…isn’t that the saying? I see so much of myself reflected in my son, both for good and ill. Sometimes I think one of the main reasons for us to have kids is to better understand ourselves through the mirror of their eyes.
This is relatable… I am learning to deal with the issues at hand and not the person or personality with me. It is so easy to transfer aggression when you’re in a bad mood but respect has also played a huge role in making sure I don’t go overboard
Yes–respect is so important. I often find when I’m in just that mode of shame/hurt/martyrdom it’s so hard to get out of it. But, you’re right. Focusing on respecting both ourselves and the other person makes a huge difference.
Oh wow we have these moments all the time. I think you deal with in a far superior way to how I might though and made it a life learning moment. I would internally seethe, justify my pettiness and then forget it eventually. Repeat. 😫
I have spent a long long time internally seething and will no doubt fall into doing exactly that more often than not. But every once in a while, I can see the light. That’s the best I can hope for, I think. Until I find a way to channel some more saintly person–I think I’ll just have to keep muddling through. Thank you for reading and making me feel better by knowing I’m not alone!
I love your honesty, Angela, and you have absolutely hit upon one thing that makes a long term relationship a long term project! I have a tendency to be a housework victim: the only one to wipe down kitchen worktops, for instance. That splinter starts to swell up and get sore, particularly if I am stressed. This week I’ve had flu and when I finally made it downstairs yesterday the thing I said to my loving partner was ‘if I died, I don’t think the worktops would ever get wiped again’. !!! What???!!! It took me a while to realise he was then deep cleaning the kitchen out of guilt. I think we all have a little script, or collection of scripts, and if we feel vulnerable we go into the script. I suppose it’s better to realise what happened and acknowledge it, than pretend you were justified.
That’s a perfect description–a little script we play or fall back on in these moments.
I know I need to watch out for these things even more so now.
I also love the description as a housework victim. Perfect. And I know I do that too.
Always appreciate your thoughts, Ali!